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)