The Halloween we know and love today truly is a monster mash of cultures, traditions and history.

Many of us won’t be dressing up to go trick-or-treating this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. But nothing is stopping the holiday from being celebrated with pumpkin carving, scary movie marathons, and lots and lots of candy. This year’s Halloween may be a little different from what we are used to, but the Halloween we know and love is a result of centuries of traditions that have evolved from around the world. 

Early European Roots

While almost every culture has a day to honor their dead, Halloween’s origin is credited to the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain which originated around 2000 years ago. Celebrated midway between the fall equinox and winter solstice, on the Celtic new years eve, Samhain was a welcome to the “dark half of the year” and the harvest season. This day in particular was when the veil to the spiritual world was believed to be thinnest, and thus permeable to both the dead and the living. To avoid being kidnapped from monsters and fairies, Celtics dressed up in disguises and left sacrifices. Other festivities included a large communal bonfire, fortune telling and drinking. 

Samhain Bonfire on October 31st

A large communal bonfire was an important part of Samhain celebrations. At the end of the night, families would take some of the fire back home to relight their hearth. COURTESY OF YOUR IRISH.

In the mid 700’s, Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day, a Christian holiday to recognize deceased Saints, to November 1st – the day after Samhain. Christian holiday celebrations usually start the night before so the move was an attempt to move people away from Samhain celebrations and into the church. The name was changed to All Hallows Eve (meaning All Holy Eve) which was eventually shortened to the name we know as Halloween. 

However, the name itself did not bring rise to the traditions we celebrate today. That would come in 1000 AD, when the church also added All Souls’ Day as November 2nd. This holiday was dedicated to praying for Christian souls stuck in Purgatory so that the deceased could finally reach heaven. Children capitalized on the holiday by going door to door “souling”. They would ask for “soul cakes” in return for prayers for lost souls.

Around the globe, the end of October and beginning of November was being associated with all the elements Halloween needed to become the spooky holiday we know today:  monsters, spirits, bonfires, dressing up and asking for treats from strangers. But the celebrations weren’t widely celebrated or accepted into American society, especially when early settlers wanted to leave the church. This would occur with the rise in immigration in the early 19th century.

Soul Cakes for All Souls Day

“Souling” for small spiced cakes for All Souls Day was considered an early form of trick-or-treating. COURTESY OF CATH FAMILY.

The Transition to America: Halloween Turns Destructive

By the start of the 19th century, immigration into America was growing. This brought traditions from other countries. For example, Jack-o-lanterns, which children soon found to be a spooky prank if held up to windows

Pranks became more widespread and every year intensified. Children would wear masks to avoid being caught, bonfires caught building ablaze, and rocks would break shop and car windows. By 1933, at the height of The Great Depression, Halloween became so destructive that it left cities like Detroit in shambles and was known as Devil’s Night or Mischief Night. 

Firefighters on Devil's Night in Detroit

Devil’s Night or Mischief Night was filled with pranks that often turned destructive. COURTESY OF TIME MAGAZINE.

Commercialization: The Halloween We Know Today

In an attempt to pull kids from the streets and prevent destruction, schools started throwing their own Halloween celebration. This shift commercialized Halloween. Costume contests and haunted houses provided a market for store bought costumes and the rise of trick-or-treating created the individually wrapped mini candy market. 

The 1950s brought televisions into the American household and as such costumes shifted from witches, skeletons and all things scary to pop culture icons like superheroes and princesses. Although the mischief didn’t disappear completely, Halloween became a more family-friendly affair with parades, parties and trick-or-treating. 

Then, just as all things in society eventually do, Halloween shifted to Hollywood. 1966 introduced the first Halloween film in the form of “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” and by 1978, the “Halloween” franchise opened up a new realm for slasher movies. This also influenced the costume industry as villainous masks can be found in almost any Halloween store.  

It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown

“It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” introduced Halloween to the film industry, cementing the holiday as a part of American society. COURTESY OF BUSTLE.

Today, Halloween is still a consumer holiday. Costumes, candy and decorations are worth billions of dollars around Halloween. Even with COVID-19 restrictions, it is estimated that Americans will spend $8.05 billion dollars on Halloween this year. It seems the costumes and candy will be here to stay for a while. 

Tell us, how are you celebrating Halloween this year? What are your favorite traditions? Comment below.