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The History of Halloween

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Halloween: A History

The Story of Halloween: Saints, Souls, Pumpkins, Mischief and, of course, Candy

An Early 19th Century HalloweenMy first Halloween involved a butterfly costume, a parade at my elementary school, and lugging a pillowcase around my neighborhood for trick-or-treating. Although diving into my mountain of candy later that night was easily one of the best moments of my young life, it really was a far cry from the first celebrations of Halloween. Not that I cared at that point. But now, as I’m forced to accept that I really am too old to go door-to-door looking for candy, my interest in the traditions of Halloween is piqued. Where did this fantastic holiday begin? Who was the inspired genius that decided to carve a face on a pumpkin and put a candle in it? When did it become such a huge moneymaker for candy companies worldwide? Despite the fact that almost anyone can retell the story of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah, hardly anyone can tell the true story of Halloween. Except for me, that is. Here we go.

Two thousand years ago, in what is now Ireland, the Celts celebrated November 1st as their New Year. It was believed that as winter came in and summer ended, the lines between the living world and that of the dead became easy to cross. The festival was called Samhain, and it celebrated the return of the dead to earth, where they killed crops and generally caused trouble. The name “Halloween” came about in the 8th century, when Pope Gregory III declared November 1st as All Saints Day. Around 200 years later, November 2nd became known as All Souls Day, to honor the dead. In an attempt for the Church to reclaim the Celtic pagan celebration, October 31st became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

Jack o'lanternsHalloween didn’t really catch on in America until the later half of the 19th century, when English and Irish immigrants brought their traditions overseas with them. One tradition involved the carving of lanterns from vegetables, such as turnips, which were left on doorsteps on All Hallows Eve in an effort to ward off evil spirits. Much of it is based in folklore, for example, the tale of Stingy Jack, who makes a pact with the Devil, offering his soul in exchange for payment of his bar tab, and where many believe the term Jack o’lantern comes from. With the wave of immigration in the 19th century and the great availability of pumpkins (which have long been associated with the harvest season in the US), which were much easier to carve, the tradition continued, becoming associated with Halloween in the 1860s.

Costumes became popular, as well as going door-to-door asking for money, and superstitions about predicting the future began to grow. Women believed on Halloween they could discover their future husband through a series of tricks with apples, yarn, or mirrors. By the end of the century, parents and community leaders were attempting to take the morbid, frightening, and superstitious aspects of the holiday out of Halloween. Neighborhood parties became more popular and the religious elements grew less and less important.

Trick or TreatersThe vandalism associated with Mischief Night began in the 1920s and 30s, attaching an element of danger to the holiday. But as more communities worked to control these crimes, community celebrations of Halloween emerged, including parades and town parties. In the 1950s, during the baby boom, more and more communities popped up in the suburbs, and Halloween moved out of public into the home and classroom. Trick-or-treating grew popular again, perhaps due to the spread of safe, organized neighborhoods. From that point, the traditions only continued to grow as pop culture latched on, commercializing the holiday until it reached its current state. Now, Americans spend about $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it one of our favorite holidays, topped only by Christmas.

In some ways, I’m too old for Halloween. I can’t trick-or-treat anymore, I don’t believe all the superstitions anymore, and I can’t eat 3 pounds of candy in one sitting anymore. Fortunately, though, Halloween isn’t just for kids. I can still get dressed up (you’re never too old to spend the entire year planning a costume), go to a party that with at least ten girls dressed like cats and too many Scream masks to count, go on haunted hayrides and scream like a little girl (I wish I would outgrow that), and sneak candy out of the bowl intended for trick-or-treaters. Halloween is here to stay, and I fully intend to keep enjoying it no matter how old I am. Hopefully you plan to do the same this year, whether that means taking your kids trick-or-treating or hiding in the bushes to scare random passer-bys.

Madeline Harrington is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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