Celtic Festivals to Candy Corn: A Brief History of Halloween

How did All Hallows Eve become a costume- and candy-obsessed fright night?

People often lament the fact that Halloween has become a holiday dedicated to slutty costumes. But I'm not sure they really have a case here. Unlike Christmas or Easter, Halloween is not a pious holiday of religious reflection. Yes, it has historic ties to religion and to honoring the dead, but costumes, parades, evil spirits, and bonfires have been a part of the deal since the very beginning.

Let’s backtrack before we get to the fun part where Snickers are handed out on doorsteps. The origins of Halloween are linked to a Celtic festival of the dead, called Samhain. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “dark season” with costumes to ward off ghosts, and bonfires. It wasn’t until the Romans conquered Celtic territory that Halloween took on a more religious significance.

Samhain was combined with the Roman festivals of Feralia (celebrating the deceased) and Pomona (celebrating the goddess of fruit and trees), before becoming the final night in a five-month-plus “holiday” honoring all martyrs and saints that ran from May 13–November 1. November 2 was declared All Saints (or Hallows) Day, giving way for the night before to become All Saints (or Hallows) Eve (or evening). And thus, Hallowe’en.

In the early days of Protestant America, Halloween was a generally unpopular holiday. But immigrants coming in from Ireland and beyond were big supporters of the celebration and helped popularize it for Americans. That’s when trick-or-treating gained traction — people in costume would go house to house asking for either money or food.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that Halloween wiggled free from its religious associations, becoming more family-friendly than religious. So where did the candy, pumpkin carving, and sexy cat costumes come in?

Original trick-or-treaters could get anything from coins and toys to cookies and fruits. One of the original Halloween sweets was candy corn, but wrapped chocolates and hard candies finally made their fateful push into the Halloween lexicon in the 1950s. Parents were pleased by the convenience of small pre-wrapped candies that took the place of putting together their own treats for neighborhood kids, and the habit stuck. Today, people spend more than $2 billion on Halloween candy, with Snickers and Reese’s at the top of the heap. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/SanFranAnnie)

 

Pumpkins and other autumnal fruits and vegetables were always significant in the American celebration of Halloween, even before its ubiquitous popularity. But the tradition of carving pumpkins into spooky jack-o'-lanterns derives from the Celtic practice of carving faces into hollowed turnips. They’d place candles inside and put them on windowsills to keep away the evil spirit of Stingy Jack (he was supposedly so evil, that heaven nor hell wanted him, so he had to roam the Earth forever). What’s interesting to note is that the large majority of pumpkins purchased in the U.S. are used for carving jack-o'-lanterns, rather than cooking or baking.

The one costume that’s been going strong throughout Halloween’s lengthy history is the witch, though these witches’ hemlines have been shortening a little every year. Part of not only traditional Halloween folklore but also of American history (with the Salem witch trials and the like), dressing as a witch dates back to the early days of All Hallows Eve. Dracula, too, is an ever-popular adult costume choice, with Bram Stoker’s tale dating back to 1897. Costumes and Halloween are intrinsically and historically linked, though taking advantage of the opportunity to show off one’s assets is a modern-day development.  

Halloween is definitely not exclusive to the States. A majority of countries around the world celebrate All Hallows Eve in unique ways, from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to the originally pagan practice of bobbing for apples in Ireland and Scotland. Common threads through all international Halloween festivities are an honoring of the deceased and a keeping away of evil spirits. In the Czech Republic, families put chairs in front of the fire — one for each family member and one for each of their spirits, while the Chinese traditionally put food out in front of photos of deceased family members to honor their memory.

A traditional cake is served in Ireland, called “barmbrack,” which is a fruitcake with wrapped prizes baked into it. And each prize is said to foretell the future of whoever finds it. A ring means you’ll be wed, a rag means you’ll hit a rough patch, and the coin means you’ll enjoy a prosperous year. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Diádoco)

Even with their own Halloween history, rituals, and customs, almost every country around the world that celebrates the holiday today follows a similar creed of costumes, candies, and chills.

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