The contemporary Halloween is most often said to descend from the Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced “Sahwen”), one of the four great Quarter days in the ancient Celtic calendar. Samhain, celebrated on November 1 in the Roman calendar, was in fact the greatest of the Quarter days; it was the first day of winter and the first day of the new year. While little is known directly of Samhain in pre-Christian Ireland, the sagas that were written down by monks centuries after the conversion (circa 300 c.e.) indicate that Samhain occupied a central position in the temporal organization of that society. As a turning point, both of a new season (or quarter) of the year, and of the year itself, many beliefs and rituals accrued to the festival. Traditionally there were bonfires, and there was a general belief that during this time of transition the barriers that separated the world of the living from that of the dead were permeable. The souls of those who had died during the year traveled to the otherworld during this period. Offerings of food and drink were left for these traveling spirits.
As Ireland converted to Christianity, the older celebrations and feast days were replaced with the official holy days of the church. Nevertheless, the pre-Christian traditions were maintained, often in an uneasy relationship with Christian doctrine. For instance, the mythology of the fairy world is thought by many scholars to be an adaptation of older Celtic myth to the new conditions. November 1 was celebrated as All Saints Day or All Hallows Day beginning in the seventh century, and November 2 became All Souls Day in the tenth century. These days of the dead may have been intended to redirect the pre-Christian spirituality toward church-approved devotions to all the saints who did not otherwise enjoy their own feast day, and to praying for the souls of those who had died during the previous year. However, this strategy also allowed for the continuation of many of the older beliefs and practices. The Eve of All Hallows, known by many names, including Halleve, Holy Eve, and Hallowe’en, became (or continued as) an important annual festival of family, both living and deceased.
Halloween in Ireland is also a time for family reunions and feasts. It is similar to the American Thanksgiving in this regard. The Irish equivalent to trick-or-treating, Halloween rhyming, is done in the weeks prior to Halloween, leaving the night itself open to family get-togethers. Due to its perceived origins in ancient Celtic traditions, and its position as one of the four great Quarter days, Halloween remains a major festival in contemporary Ireland.
Halloween Comes to the U.S.
It is said that when millions of Irish people immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century, fleeing the potato famine, they brought their Halloween traditions with them. Earlier Irish immigrants, including the Ulster Protestants who had helped colonize North America, had already introduced Halloween to the New World, but in the nineteenth century the holiday took hold as a day for parties and games, much as it had been at home. “Dunkin’” for apples, burning nuts on the hearth to predict whether a couple would have a good relationship, trying to bite an apple suspended from a string (“snap apple”) and other games and divination beliefs were joined by traditional pranks and tricks. The spirits of the dead were joined by living mischief-makers who were given license to make noise, harass homeowners, and overturn outhouses. Perhaps because of its origin as a transitional point in the old calendar, Halloween is a time out of time—a liminal period when the dead join the living; marginal creatures such as ghosts and witches roam; the future can be determined, and people are allowed to break the rules of order.
Halloween rhyming in Ireland is directly descended from earlier mumming practices. “Mumming” involves dressing in traditional disguise and processing from home to home, where a performance of some sort is rewarded with a gift of food or drink. The American analogue, trick-or-treating, is clearly influenced by the Irish model, as well as the many ritual begging customs of other peoples who came to the United States. Thought to have begun in the 1930s as a way to deflect the ever-spiraling pranking of youngsters, trick-or-treating caught on nationally after World War II, as urbanization and suburbanization grew rapidly. By the 1950s, it had all but displaced domestic parties as the primary custom of Halloween (pranking continued apace in more rural areas), and Halloween became known as a children’s holiday. However, within two decades, Halloween was appropriated by college and university students as a festival of public costuming as well as of excess. Further, in major cities such as New York, the holiday was appealing to great numbers of adults. For some time, Halloween had been utilized by groups of gay people as an occasion to publicly parade their otherwise forbidden identity. In Boston, gay men dressed as women and paraded annually, as they did in New York. Eventually the New York Halloween parade became a kind of performance art festival, joined by people of many backgrounds. Likewise, in cities throughout the country adults reclaimed Halloween as an occasion of masquerading and festivity. Many cities now are home to more than one such street festival: Washington, D.C. features one such carnivalesque occasion in the Georgetown section, comprised largely of students from the nearby university, while families with children promenade in costume along East Capitol Street on Capitol Hill.
With the growing involvement of an older generation has come the inevitable consumerism. As trick-or-treating became established, store-bought sweets gradually replaced the homemade treats such as apples and doughnuts. Storebought costumes replaced the old clothes and rags scoured from drawers at home. Today, these commercial efforts have been joined by “trick-or-treating at the mall” and among merchants, efforts that are often blatantly commercial in nature. Other Halloween customs have quickly been capitalized upon, as well. For instance, along with the street festivals, people have begun to decorate their homes extensively with assemblages of symbolic objects such as dummies, ghosts, corn stalks, and so forth. Mass-produced versions of these usually homemade objects are now found in the department stores, along with electric outdoor display lights similar to those used at Christmas.
Nevertheless, despite its increasing importance economically, Halloween remains a popular celebration that allows for inversion and political satire. Images of politicians and celebrities have joined the traditional costumes of ghouls and other evil, malevolent folk. Groups of people disguised as atomic waste—this and other contemporary plagues, such as consumer goods that have been tampered with, are all part of the parade of taboos publicly paraded at Halloween. It remains a time of danger, as attested by the legends of poisoned treats and razor blades in apples, all of which have proven untrue. If people once feared demons and vampires, today we are more likely to fear the neighbor we do not know, or the stranger who just might be an axe murderer. For all its corporatization, Halloween remains a night of festive inversion, a time when people partake in age-old customs, not because they have to, but because they want to.
Adapted from Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days by Len Travers
From the chapter "Halloween" by Jack Santino
Did you know the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas? Or that trick-or-treating on Halloween began in the late 1930s? Every holiday has a history, and this book sets out to tell it.