The History Behind Halloween

Author: Alecia Pirulis

It’s nearly that time – kids will put on their costumes and go door-to-door, shouting “trick-or-treat!” as they hold open bags for the candy that will inevitably be shelled out by the homeowners. Yards are being transformed into spooky graveyards and Jack-o’-Lanterns will soon sit on front porches and in windows. Adults and children alike will be dressed up in elaborate costumes for a night of parties, festivals, and trick-or-treating. So, why do we do this? Although the candy-filled event of today is very different from its origins, Halloween is a tradition that dates back about 6,000 years – to around 4,000 B.C.

It began with the Celts, who lived in the area that is now Ireland, northern France, and the United Kingdom. They celebrated the new year on November 1 with a bonfire and a cider made from apples and spices, believing that the silvery branches of apple trees helped dead souls find their path heavenward. The hard cider they made usually had apples floating on top (perhaps leading to the modern tradition of bobbing for apples).

The Celtics held a festival the night before the new year to say goodbye to summer and to prepare for winter. The harsh conditions, the lack of food, and the bitter cold of the coming winter often brought darkness and death, so to bring comfort and hope to the Celts, the Druid priests would make predictions for the future.

The Celts believed that the boundary between the living and the dead blurred on the night before the new year, and the mischievous dead would return to cause trouble and damage crops. To stave off the pranks and honor the dead, the Celts carved turnips into lanterns. The Celts thought they could keep the spirits from causing trouble for them if they couldn’t find them – so they disguised themselves as ghosts and ghouls so they’d “blend in” with the spirits wandering around.

In 609 A.D., a Catholic celebration called All Martyrs Day began. Eventually, this holiday expanded to include saints, and around 1,000 A.D., the holiday was renamed All Saint’s Day. It was moved from its former date in May to November 2 to “capture” the pagan rituals into the religious holiday. The Middle English word for All Saints’ Day was Alholowmesse, which evolved into All-hallows Eve and finally to Halloween. On All Saints’ Day, the poor would beg others for food. They would often be handed “soul cakes” with the stipulation that they pray for the dead relatives of those handing out the cakes.

Young, unmarried women would use the holiday’s mythical qualities to try “tricks” with mirrors and apple parings. They believed that if they could peel an apple in one long strip and then toss it over their shoulder, the peel would reveal the first letter of their future husband’s name. If they sat in a dark room with a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would supposedly appear – but if they were unlucky enough to be destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear.

When colonists arrived to the New World, some – mainly those settling in Maryland and the Southern colonies – brought their traditions with them. Their customs intertwined with various Native American customs and beliefs, causing the celebration to morph toward the modern US version of Halloween. Using the resources they had, colonists began carving native pumpkins instead of turnips. The celebrations stayed localized to just a few communities until the 1800s, when a large influx of Irish settlers caused the celebrations to spread.

The modern “trick-or-treat” tradition didn’t begin until the mid-1900s to try and put a stop to the pranks being pulled by bored youths. Town leaders urged the kids to dress up and go door-to-door for candy to prevent them from playing tricks. The idea caught on — this year, Halloween is expected to bring in nearly eight billion dollars in decorations, costumes, and candy sales, according to the National Retail Federation.

Want to bring a little bit of history into your Halloween celebration? In addition to carving pumpkins and decorating your apartment, try making some soul cakes. Have some fun at your next Halloween party by whipping up some Barmbrack. This Irish treat is served at Halloween and is traditionally prepared with a coin and a ring baked into the loaf. Whoever got the ring would be married within a year and whoever got the coin would be rich. (You can make the loaf without the “treasure.” If you decide to bake it with the coin and ring, be sure to warn your guests to be on the lookout for the items before they dig in!) Impress your friends by making a batch of Treacle Toffee, a British treat served around Halloween. Or, whip up a few of these traditional goodies and you’ll be the hit of the Halloween party!

Show off your knowledge of the history of Halloween by decorating with traditional items – Jack-o’-Lanterns, ghosts, a scarecrow, and apples. Even if you don’t want to decorate your entire apartment for Halloween, a decorated table (complete with a homemade centerpiece) laden with treats will add a festive touch to your evening, even if you plan to just stay home and answer the doorbell.