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Unmasking the centuries-old evolution of Halloween

Before Halloween turned into a candy and costume-driven commercial phenomenon, its origins span centuries and diverse global evolution.
Unmasking the centuries-old evolution of Halloween
Posted at 3:41 PM, Oct 29, 2023

Before black cats, haunted houses, and trick-or-treating, there was an ancient fall festival predating Halloween as we know it.

“It comes from the ancient Irish Celtic celebration of Sauin, which was their new year's festival,” said Lisa Morton.

Lisa Morton is the author of several Halloween books.

She says the Keltic people had an annual celebration marking the end of fall and the beginning of a (in a bit of a spooky voice) colder, darker season.

Morton says the Keltics believed the barrier between seasons also meant the barrier between worlds was down.

“They believed in an otherworld where these malicious things called the she resided, and on Sauin, those things could cross over and wreak all kinds of terrible havoc,” said Morton.

It sounds pretty spooky. But the Halloween of today isn’t influenced just by the Keltic tradition, according to American holidays scholar Daniel Gifford.

“There's Scottish influences, there's Celtic influences, there's German folktales about witches and things in the forest. All these traditions go all the way back to Roman times. There's a Catholic element on 'All Saints Day' and 'All Souls Day.' So, it's really just kind of this big stew of influences,” said Gifford.

The Christian holiday of “All Saints' Day” celebrated the saints of the church on Nov. 1. Back then, it was called “Hallowmass.”

The night before was “All Hallow’s Eve." Which eventually turned into Halloween. The day after, or Nov. 2, is known as “All Souls’ Day.”

All Souls Day is a commemoration of the dead and praying for the dead to help them move from purgatory into paradise,” said Beth Allison Bar.

Allison Bar is a history professor at Baylor University.

"I think the Halloween that we have today is definitely more derivative of the medieval 'All Hallows Eve' tradition. And I say that because most of the customs we have stemmed from the medieval celebration,” said Allison Bar.

SEE MORE: Tips to keep kids and families safe this Halloween

Those customs have evolved over time. But many still trace their roots to centuries ago.

Customs like witches, goblins, and Jack-o-Laterns

“Pumpkins and the Jack-o-Lantern come from the Irish, who used to like to play pranks on people in their own homeland by carving these big gourds or these huge turnips that they had, and they would carve this spooky face on them. And the spooky face was supposed to represent a legendary character called Jack of the Lantern,” said Morton.

That pranking was also a staple of the holiday early on.

“Young guys, young men, and boys were still, you know, using the opportunity to play pranks, to cause mischief, to vandalize older, you know, to get rowdy and drunk,” said Gifford.

“Pranking became huge in the early 20th century for Halloween, and by the 1930s, it had become so destructive that cities were trying to figure out some way to buy these kids off, and that's when we got trick-or-treat,” said Morton.

“Trick or treat” was not the friendly greeting we think of today. But rather a compromise: “Give us a treat or we'll trick you."

The tradition helped Halloween evolve into the kid-centric day it is now.

“You have this shift towards more and more children. What we recognize as trick or treating, I think, really took off after World War II with the suburban boom. You know, if you think about a typical suburb with all those houses, one after the other, you know, everyone kind of, you know, is in a single community. It's tailor-made for trick-or-treating. And so that really takes off. It stays focused on kids, and it just grows. It grows and grows,” said Gifford.

While the holiday caters to kids today, it still appeals to adults too, according to Katherine Cullen from the National Retail Federation.

“We've seen a lot of young adults embracing this holiday. It really is a visual holiday. And I think we have seen, with the rise of social media platforms, people sharing their lives and inspiration on a variety of channels and in a variety of ways with their friends and family. We've seen that grow over the last decade, and Halloween is the perfect holiday for people to bring all of that together," said Cullen.

And to do it all without too much real Halloween fear.

“We like it for the same reason that we like a good horror movie or going through a haunted attraction. We like to test our fears in a really safe environment, and Halloween lets us be playful about it, be creative, and be whimsical. And I think that's part of why it has just continued to grow in popularity,” said Morton.

From an old fall festival to a religious commemoration to today’s candy- and costume-crazed celebration Halloween remains a holiday that is scarily successful.

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