The Origins of Our Halloween Traditions

Halloween illustration by Stefan Schweihofer

It’s coming up on Halloween, and so it’s time for America’s greatest annual October tradition: Christmas sales!

Joking around aside, Halloween is one of America’s most popular holidays – netting as much as $6 billion per year in candy and costume sales. This fall festival is a great time of year to carve pumpkins, watch scary movies, or to dress up as our favorite monsters or fictional characters.

... or farm equipment?

… or farm equipment?

Why do we celebrate this holiday? Where did our Halloween traditions come from? Why is there such an emphasis on scary stuff at this time of year? It’s time to look at the origins of our Halloween traditions.

Of pagans and Christians

Pagan imagery from Wikimedia Commons

Long-time Cat Flaggers already know that Christmas and Easter both started out as pagan holidays that were “Christian-ified” so that people could keep celebrating their favorite traditions once they converted to the new religion. Well, Halloween started out the same way.

The ancient Celtic peoples of Europe celebrated a festival on November 1 called “Samhain” that marked the start of winter. They believed that the spirits of the dead walked among the living on that day. They would light bonfires and sacrifice animals to honor the dead. When Christians started converting the people of Europe to their religion, they designated November 1 as “All Saints Day”, a day to honor the memory of the Christian saints. In the British Isles, this day would be celebrated with the handing out of “soul cakes” – a bread pastry – to the poor, who would repay the favor by praying for the donors’ recently departed loved ones.

The Spanish brought the celebration of All Saints Day to the New World, where it became fused with ancient Aztec traditions to become Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), a festival for honoring one’s deceased loved ones by leaving out offerings of food and gifts for them. This festival has been growing in popularity here in the United States.

Day of the Dead image from Pixabay

In medieval English, All Saints Day was known as “All-Hallowmas”, and the day before it was called “All-Hallows Eve”. Over time, the name “All-Hallows Eve” was shortened to “Halloween”.

Trick or Treat!

The practice of trick-or-treating is as ancient as the Halloween holiday itself, originating in the practice of “mumming and guising”. This was where people would beg for food while dressed up in disguises made of straw, sometimes enticing people to give more by performing skits.

Irish immigrants that came to America in the 19th century revived some of these traditions, but took them in a darker direction. The phrase “trick or treat” was originally a threat. Vandalism was common, as were such pranks as tipping over outhouses and opening gates so livestock could escape. By the time World War II came around, the annual damage done by Halloween revelers became such a serious concern that communities across America began to organize and take action against these pranksters, encouraging safer Halloween practices that weren’t so harmful to one’s neighbors.

By the 1950s, families and communities across America had turned trick-or-treating into the tradition we have today – a tradition of handing out candy to supervised children in costumes while going door-to-door in their neighborhood. By making Halloween a celebration mainly for children, communities were able to make it safer and more family-friendly.

Carve your pumpkin

Jack-o-lantern image by William Warby

The jack-o-lantern is by far the most popular and iconic symbol of the holiday. It just isn’t Halloween unless you are hollowing out a big, orange squash and sticking a candle in it! Who came up with the idea of carving pumpkins?

Once again, we have Irish immigrants to thank for this tradition. For centuries, the Irish would carve spooky faces into turnips and stick lit embers in them. The idea was to scare away evil spirits, making sure that they wouldn’t ruin a day as sacred as All Saints Day. Not long after arriving in the New World, Irish-Americans realized that pumpkins were practically made for carving, as big and as easy to hollow out as they are. Why struggle to carve a turnip when you have plenty of pumpkins to carve?

So why do we call these carved pumpkins jack-o-lanterns? The name is a reference to a popular legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who managed to trick the Devil. He convinced the Devil to climb an apple tree, then trapped him there by putting crosses on the ground around the base of the tree. He finally let the Devil go in return for a promise to never be taken to Hell. Trouble was, when Stingy Jack died, he wasn’t allowed to enter Heaven; he had simply lived far too sinful a life. Unable to go to Heaven or Hell, Jack’s soul took to wandering the world, with nothing but a lantern to guide his way.

We dare you to scare us, Hollywood!

Nosferatu Shadow image from Wikipedia

In 1896, French filmmaker Georges Méliès, a pioneer of the then-new medium of motion pictures, created Le Manoir Du Diable, a three-minute short film often credited as the first horror movie. Honestly, by modern standards, it is really quite tame, but everything has to start somewhere. Over the years, movies that are designed to scare started to grow in popularity. Many early horror films featured vampires, while others adapted classic horror novels such as Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

One of the earliest horror film stars was Lon Chaney, who portrayed the villain or monster of dozens of horror films from 1913 to 1929. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” because the characters he played were often disfigured, monstrous, or grotesque. Many admired the way his acting prowess showed through behind his heavy makeup. He died of lung cancer at the height of his popularity in 1930.

The 1930s and 1940s saw a series of famous horror films produced by Universal Pictures, featuring such monsters as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Mummy. These films were so influential, they helped to shape the public image of these creatures in popular culture right down to the present day.

Of course, parodies such as "The Munsters" certainly helped.

Of course, parodies such as “The Munsters” certainly helped.

Of course, it would be a disservice to the genre to ignore the contributions of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, director of such films as Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. While Hitchcock worked on a wide variety of different types of films, his contribution to horror was elevating it above mere B-movie entertainment. While the majority of horror movies, both then and now, have always been populist in nature and have always emphasized cheap scares, Hitchcock proved that the genre could also be used for more high-art projects that are unsettling on a much deeper level. Later films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining and Silence of the Lambs certainly owe a huge debt to Hitchcock’s work.

To be perfectly honest, horror movies have never been my thing. However, plenty of people love them, and every year these films earn millions of dollars. Sure, star-studded action and comedy movies earn far, far more at the box office, but those movies also cost far, far more to make. Horror films are, in general, very inexpensive to make, so they tend to be immensely profitable even with merely modest box office sales. Clearly, Hollywood is going to keep making horror films for a long time to come.

Whether you spend the end of October watching scary movies, turning pumpkins into works of art, or dressing up in a costume, I hope you all have a Happy Halloween!

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