The History of Halloween: Opening the doorway between the living and the dead

Photo by Danielle Jarkowsky

Trick-or-treating. Dressing in costumes. Carving jack-o-lanterns. We associate these with Halloween, but how did these traditions arise?

Photo by Danielle Jarkowsky
Photo by Danielle Jarkowsky

Halloween derives from the Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-han), meaning summer’s end. During Samhain, people celebrated the end of the agricultural year with festivals and made preparations for the darkness and dead of winter.

The Celts believed the evening before the first day of a new season marked an actual space- time boundary. Like a doorway, on Samhain the boundary between the living and the dead was permeable. Graves would open and ghosts of the dead would roam the earth, either visiting relatives or trying to get the living to cross the boundary.

Bettina Arnold, Co-director for the Center for Celtic Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Celtic folklore expert, writes about Halloween customs originating in the Celtic world.

According to Arnold, people would put out food offerings, hoping to appease the dead. Handing out candy could symbolize the sacrificial offering given to the supernatural world as a request for a blessing or a curse, although scholars are not clear how much sacrifice played a part in Samhain.

Like today, people would let loose, dress up, and prank their neighbors.

Fortune-telling rituals were popular, particularly marriage divination. For example, bobbing for apples was more than just a game. The premise was that the first person to bite an apple would be the next to get married.

The Old World lacked pumpkins, but they carved faces into large turnips to ward off spirits.

Christianity introduced All Saints Day to try to replace this supernatural, pagan festival because they claimed it was associated with Satan. This is when Samhain became known as All Hallow’s Eve – the eve of All Saints Day.

In his book, “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night,” Nicholas Rogers details how Halloween took hold in North America in the nineteenth century once Irish and Scottish immigrants became the predominant ethnic groups. They treated Halloween as a merrymaking occasion and a way to create community, instead of as a divination and superstition festival.

Originally, only teenage males put on costumes and went door-to-door asking for a treat in exchange for a song. Pranks, such as smashing pumpkins, and minor vandalism, such as unhinging gates, were common and acceptable.

Girls would perform marriage divination like they did in the past.

By the early 1910s, Halloween had become part of American culture. Over time, parties became more raucous, vandalism worsened, and college students used Halloween as an excuse for hazing. Soon thereafter it became a peer-group holiday.  

Halloween became commercialized: adding cats, bats, pumpkins, and orange and black as standard decorations. Then came costume contests, masquerade balls, and formalized trick-or-treating.

Trick-or-treating was instigated to try to reduce pranking and equalize interactions in a predictable exchange: you entertain me with your costume and I will give you candy.

Many changes occurred to the Samhain tradition since it evolved into the popular Halloween holiday, but one, striking thing has not: the premise that the veils between the worlds of the living and the dead dissolve.

“What’s most impressive is that since the introduction of Christianity, the pre-Christian, pagan tradition has held on,” Arnold said in a phone interview. “It’s remarkable that the part of the tradition – the world of the living is bleeding into the world of the dead and vice versa – is still center to the holiday.”

Story by Danielle Jarkowsky

At a Glance:

Halloween Customs in the Celtic World.” Bettina Nelson, October 31, 2001.

“Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.” Nicholas Rogers, Oxford University Press, 2002.