The Spooktacular And Haunting History Of Halloween

One of the first uses of the word “Hallowe’en” occurred in John Maynes’ haunting 1780 poem of the same name. Now, every October 31st, people around the world recognize Halloween as a holiday. The event is a fun occasion for those who participate. Costumes, parties, trick or treating, and good-natured pranks are all key elements of the holiday. Although Halloween is now considered a “safe” and family-friendly way to celebrate all things unworldly and supernatural, its roots are from dark Celtic and Christian traditions.

Halloween Has Ancient Origins

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CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

More than 2,000 years ago, Celtic people in the region now known as northern France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom celebrated their new year from the night of October 31st to the night of November 1st. The Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) festival was an important milestone each year. It marked the end of summer and the fall harvest and began a long, cold winter season – the “dark” part of the year.

Many people died during the brutal winters so it’s no wonder that the Celts held some superstitious beliefs about Samhain.

On October 31st, The Border Between The Worlds Of The Living And The Dead Are Believed To Disappear For The Night

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The Celtic people believed that during the night of October 31st, the border between the worlds of the living and of the dead would temporarily dissipate. This allowed the souls of the dead to re-enter the land of the living for the night.

This supernatural event was cause for both joy and fear. On the joyous end of the spectrum, the Celts invited the spirits of their departed loved ones to come to visit by holding festive celebrations including parades and offerings of food and wine.

Spirits Helped To Predict The Future

Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images
Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images

According to Celtic lore, the presence of loved ones’ spirits could help the living predict the future. Without any quick or reliable way to spread news or weather forecasts, these glimpses into the future were very important during ancient times. They provided clues of how harsh the upcoming winter would be, as well as offer guidance on how to cope in tough times.

During Samhain, people would light huge bonfires and attempt to tell each others’ fortunes by calling on the wisdom of visiting spirits. Once the festival was over, people would return home and use flames from the bonfire to light their hearths. This was supposed to help protect them from harm over the long winter.

Malicious Entities Could Wreak Havoc

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Not all of the spirits that visited the land of the living on October 31st were friendly and helpful relatives, however. The Celts were fearful of malicious and evil souls during this time as well. These spirits could cause big problems with their mean-spirited actions.

Celtic people believed that their crops could be ruined by sinister demons and were rightfully anxious, as their very survival depended on the food they had gathered for winter. They came up with ways to trick malicious spirits and reduce the harm they could inflict.

Masks And Disguises

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

To hide themselves from ill-intentioned or malicious ghosts, ancient Celts used masks and other disguises. This practice was the very beginning of what is now a common modern tradition: the wearing of costumes on Halloween.

People used their disguises to look like evil spirits so they’d go unnoticed by the real ghosts lurking around during Samhain. They’d wear animal skins and heads in an effort to mask their human appearances. Sometimes they would even weave outfits from straw.

The Significance Of Apples

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Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images

Another symbol of Halloween that’s strongly associated with our modern holiday celebrations developed as a result of ancient Celtic practices: apples. The fruit was essential to winter survival in these days, as they were easy to grow and could be used in a variety of ways. Whether small or large, sour or sweet, apples were of great importance and were eagerly harvested every fall.

“They could be eaten fresh, boiled or baked; strung up to dry for the winter months; or allowed to ferment into a hard cider that must have made the dark and cold easier to bear,” says NPR.

Bobbing For Apples Was A Fortune-Telling Technique

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George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Most of us have bobbed for apples at a Halloween party. How did this unusual tradition start? Surprisingly, the popular party game was first played by ancient Celtics who thought they could tell the future with apples during Samhain festivities.

Unattached ladies would mark an apple in a discreet way and place them into a large vat of water. Men would then dunk their heads into the water to grab an apple with their teeth. The apple a man selected would indicate which woman he’d supposedly end up marrying.

Early Trick Or Treating

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Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Christianity spread throughout Europe in the eighth century. Ancient Celtic rituals gradually blended with Christian traditions as a result. Pope Gregory III renamed November 1st “All Saints’ Day” and November 2nd “All Souls’ Day” in an effort to turn Samhain into a church-sanctioned holiday. The day before All Saints’ Day began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, much later, Halloween.

The festive parades, huge bonfires, and disguise-wearing continued but costumes at this point in time were more likely to include representations of Christian symbols such as angels and saints. The tradition of “souling” on All Saints Day involved children and adults alike dressing in disguises and going door-to-door begging for food in exchange for prayers for the dead – an early form of trick or treating.

Soul Cakes

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Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images

During All Souls’ Day celebrations, it became traditional to bake “soul cakes” as offerings to dead loved ones. The Church encouraged this practice, and wealthier households would hand them out to costumed revelers who came begging.

You can taste a soul cake for yourself, as traditional recipes for the treats can be found online. They were closer to modern-day cookies than what most of us would consider a cake, and included basic ingredients such as flour, butter, nutmeg, sugar, and eggs. Today, store-bought goodies are usually handed out for trick or treat.

Mischief Night

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Staff/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

“Trick or treat” is what kids say when they go door-to-door today. In Halloween’s earliest days, tricks and pranks were also a key component of the celebrations. Good-natured mischief was a common way for people to have fun. Then, in 1605 a rebellious Catholic named Guy Fawkes was caught attempting to blow up British Parliament.

Protestant reformers established the English holiday “Mischief Night” on November 4th, the eve of the assassination attempt. People lit huge bonfires and roamed the city late at night. Mischief Night removed the ‘trickery’ component from the religious holiday All Saints Day. However, the northern English, Irish, and Scottish continued their tricks on All Hallows Eve. Theirs was the tradition that eventually migrated to the United States.

Halloween Evolves In Europe

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By the 1800s, trick or treating had evolved in Europe and it was customary to go door-to-door offering prayers and good fortune to households willing to hand out money, food, or drink in return.

Between 1820 to 1860, a massive wave of immigration brought almost two million Irish to the United States. These newcomers were central to bringing many elements of the All Hallows Eve tradition to America, where the customs then continued to evolve into what we know as modern-day Halloween.

Colonial Halloween

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GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

All Hallow’s Eve was already being celebrated in the United States prior to the mass Irish immigration of the nineteenth century. It was much more common in the southern colonies due to the strict Protestant belief systems in the north.

Early U.S. Halloween traditions included elements from Native American cultures. The first celebrations involved public harvest parties during which people would tell scary tales about the dead. Going to neighbors’ homes in search of food was a Thanksgiving activity until European immigrants brought the concept of trick-or-treating on All Hallow’s Eve.

The Spread Of Halloween As A National Holiday

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Pinterest/@Impi Lillukka

As Halloween’s popularity rose, church and community leaders encouraged parents to mark the day with community celebrations of autumn rather than tributes to the dead. It was during this time that the more supernatural and “scary” elements of Halloween were lost, although many still remain.

The holiday was gradually assimilated into American society and was celebrated coast to coast by the early 1900s. Children and adults alike began dressing in costumes to celebrate the night.

Trick Or Treating Seen As Extortion In The US

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Not all of the traditions of Halloween were immediately embraced in the U.S. In fact, some parents initially viewed going door-to-door for candy as begging or as a form of extortion and banned their children from participating!

The first reference to going door-to-door in the United States appeared in 1911. The term “trick or treat” first appeared in the Blackie Herald Alberta in 1927, and the practice became much more widespread in the years following.

The Evolution Of Costumes

Historic Photo Archive/Getty Images
Historic Photo Archive/Getty Images

As we’ve read, the earliest costumes were worn by ancient Celtics who dressed in animal masks and furs. As trick or treating became more common throughout Europe in the ensuing centuries, disguises like ghosts and witches became fashionable. And as the holiday spread across the globe and later became more commercialized, costumes continued to grow in creativity and in elaborateness.

The advent of photography allows us a firsthand view of some early American examples of Halloween costumes like the one above, dated 1900. Today, people dress as anything from traditional ghouls and monsters to politicians and popular movie characters.

Jack-O-Lanterns

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Carving jack-o-lanterns from pumpkins is one of the most popular Halloween activities today. The whole family can participate in the good, clean fun. But did you know that the first “jack-o-lanterns” were not made from pumpkins at all?

The original Jack O’Lantern was actually an Irish folk figure, a mean drunkard who trapped Satan himself in a tree one night. Jack made a bargain with the devil that ended up coming back to haunt him, as we’ll read next.

The Cost Of Freedom For Jack O’Lantern

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Bettmann / Contributor

In exchange for his freedom, the Devil promised Jack not to send him to hell when he died. But this meant that when Jack’s death eventually arrived, he had nowhere to go (heaven didn’t want him.) Satan threw a lump of coal at him as a final insult. Jack took the coal and placed it into a carved-out turnip to use as a light while he roamed earth for the rest of eternity.

Because of this legend, the Irish used to carve out turnips, rutabagas, potatoes, gourds, and beets before placing lights in them. This tradition evolved into modern-day pumpkin carving, which seems a lot less scary than its origin story would indicate!

Black Cats

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Tara Walton/Toronto Star via Getty Images

One of the most enduring symbols of Halloween, black cats have become synonymous with the holiday. We have the early Puritan pilgrims to thank for this tradition. During the United States’ early days as a colony, strict Protestants were fearful of witches and anything related to their evil practices.

Witches were often thought to use black cats as their “animal familiars” and were also said to be able to transition from human to cat form. Black cats were therefore feared and to this day, many people are superstitious about them – making them a perfect symbol of Halloween.

Do You Dare Utter The Name “Bloody Mary” Three Times?

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Picturenow/UIG via Getty Images

As with bobbing for apples, the spooky Halloween game “Bloody Mary” started as a fortune-telling practice. Unmarried women used to gaze into a mirror at midnight, hoping to see a glimpse of their future husbands’ faces. If they saw a skull or ghoul instead, they were doomed to die before they had a chance to marry.

Over time, people started invoking the name “Bloody Mary” as they peered into a mirror. This was a nickname for the violent ruler Queen Mary I, who suffered many tragic miscarriages during her life. The Bloody Mary game is often depicted in films and modern literature and many play it on Halloween.

Bats, Bats, Everywhere

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John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Another popular symbol of Halloween is the bat. Bats are seen swarming in vast numbers during autumn as they hunt for bugs to eat before going into hibernation for the long, cold winter. The small, winged mammals were probably present in droves at the earliest Celtic celebrations of fall for this very reason.

As the ancients lit their roaring bonfires, bats were likely to swoop in to collect the insects that the fire attracted. They soon became closely associated with early Halloween festivities and later became the subject of many superstitions. They’re even said to announce the arrival of death.