Halloween is one of the most loved holidays in America, being the sixth most popular of holidays celebrated in the United States. Its traditions have evolved from involving gritty paranormal rituals (Well, for most people) to being one of the most charming memorable events of the year.
Halloween dates back over 2,000 years ago, beginning in what is now modern day Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. The Celts were the people who lived there, and they celebrated October 31st as a day when the spiritual and earthly realms overlapped, letting the spirits of the deceased roam amongst the living. They celebrated with a festival called Samhain (sow-in), after an ancient demon they worshipped as a god.
They believed the presence of spirits made it easier for Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future. The prophecies gave comfort and direction to the Celtics; they were dependent on the turbulent natural world.
The celebratory traditions included burning a large sacred bonfire, in which they would sacrifice crops and animals to their deities (like the Romans, Egyptians, Aztecs and other civilizations did), wearing costumes of animal skins and heads to ward off phantoms, causing mischief, reading each other’s fortunes, carbon pumpkins to worship Samhain, and leaving treats at their doors to appease him and placate unwelcome spirits roaming the streets.
In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink (Influence for the term “trick-or-treat”) This custom, known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is thought to have actually come before trick-or-treating.
The Celts also believed in trusting the supernatural with their fates, as one of the traditions was for men to dunk their heads underwater and bob for apples women marked. The woman and the man, connected by the apple obtained, must stay together for the rest of Samhain, for they were believed to be soulmates. In Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called “guising”, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts, or coins. (I would love to do that. We should bring this back.)
After the celebration, they re-lit their temporarily extinguished hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to ensure their security during the coming winter.
The day after, November 1st, was the day of their new year. Samhain, meaning “summer’s end” marked the end of summer and the beginning of the long dark winter, a time associated with death.
The Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic territory by 43 AD.
In the 400 years that they ruled, two of the Romans’ festivals were combined with Samhain. One of these hybrid festivals were All Soul’s Day, which was celebrated similarly to Samhain, featuring big bonfires, parades, and costumes including saints, angels, and devils.
In the 8th century, Pope Gregory the Third made November 1st a day to honor saints. Soon, November 1st was named All Saints’ Day, and adopted traditions of Samhain.
The evening before, October 31st, was known as All Hallows’ Eve (The archaic meaning of hallow is a “saint or holy person”), later being known as Halloween. The Church traditionally held a vigil on All Hallows' Eve when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself.
A few Halloween traditions have carried on through hundreds of years. Today we have Jack-O-Lanterns, thanks to the Irish myth of a man named Jack who trapped the Devil in a tree and then made the Devil say he would not take his soul. After Jack dies, he is not welcomed into Heaven and the Devil is true to his word and will not let him into Heck, so the Devil gives Jack a burning coal, which he then puts into a hollowed-out turnip (which, by the way, were the first Jack-O-Lanterns, along with gourds), to use as a lantern to light his way as he goes off into the night roaming the earth.
When Irish immigrants first started colonizing America, they held “play parties” to celebrate the harvest (mostly in Maryland). At these parties they shared stories of the dead, told each other’s fortunes, danced, and sang, bringing a sense of neighborhood community in the new land.
During the cultural merge in America, Halloween became popular because of Irish immigrants. Americans and Irish immigrants alike celebrated, dressing in costumes, and going from door to door asking for food and money. Halloween became more about the community’s union. By the late 1800’s, Halloween parties became popular. People were encouraged to tone down the gruesome nature of the old traditions and transform Halloween into a brighter festivity.
Trick-or-treating has been a tradition in the United States for an estimated 100 years. Trick-or-treating began as an English tradition, which was actually called “souling”. Usually poor children, the “soulers”, would go from door to door begging for food or money in exchange for prayers and son in remembrance of the homeowners’ deceased relatives. The soulers would commonly get small round pastries, Soul Cakes, with a cross marked on top, which when eaten, would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory.
The commercialization of Halloween started in the 1900’s, when postcards and die-cut paper decorations were produced. Trick-or-treating, instead of guising, on Halloween popped up in North America in the 1920’s and 1930’s, first in the western half of the continent. The term and the practice slowly spread, with a brief respite during WWII.
It is not known exactly where the phrase “trick-or-treating” was born, but it is confirmed American culture adopted it by 1951, when trick-or-treating was shown in a Peanuts comic strip. In 1952, a Disney cartoon, “Trick or Treat”, was released featuring Donald and his nephews.
The reason why orange and black are typical Halloween colors is because orange was associated with the harvest, while black was associated with darkness and death.