#Lookback: History of Halloween

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

Halloween is celebrated every year on October 31st. Today, Halloween is a time where people dress up in costumes, go trick or treating, carve jack-o-lanterns, tell ghost stories, and watch scary movies. Where did these Halloween traditions start?

It is believed that Halloween’s origins are with the Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts were a group of tribes who originated in central Europe and migrated into western Europe. The tribes started forming as early as 1200 B.C. and shared similar language, religion, and traditions. Samhain was one of the religious festivals observed by the Celts. It was usually celebrated from October 31st to November 1st to welcome the harvest and the beginning of a cold, dark winter. In addition, the Celts believed that the barrier between the physical world and the spirit world would break down during Samhain. This allowed the ghosts of the dead to return to earth on the night of October 31st. The spirits would cause trouble and damage crops. Due to the collapse between the spirit world and the physical world, the Celtic priests, known as the Druids, made predictions about the future. These predictions would give the Celts comfort over the long winter. 

To celebrate Samhain, the Druids built huge bonfires that burned crops and animals as a sacrifice to the gods. In addition to lighting bonfires, Celts would wear costumes made of animal heads and skins during the celebration. They would also get their fortunes read. Once the celebration was over, the hearth fires in their homes were lit using the fire from the bonfire. This sacred bonfire would protect the Celts during the winter months.

In 43 A.D., the Roman Empire conquered most of the Celtic territory. When the Romans ruled over the Celtic territory, two Roman festivals were combined with Samhain. The first festival was Feralia, which was a day in late October that Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second festival was used to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol was the apple, which possibly explains the tradition of bobbing for apples.

By the 9th century, Christianity had spread into the Celtic territory and gradually blended with Celtic traditions. In 1000 A.D., the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, which is a day to honor the dead. It is believed that the church was attempting to replace Samhain, which honored the pagan gods, with a church-sanctioned holiday. A nickname for All Souls’ Day was All-hallows or All-hallowmas, which meant All Saints’ Day in Middle English. The night before All Souls’ Day began to be called All-Hallows Eve. Eventually, the name became Halloween.

All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to how Samhain was celebrated. There were big bonfires and participants dressed in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive a pastry called soul cakes. The soul cakes were given in exchange for a promise that they would pray for the souls of the wealthy families’ dead relatives. Later the practice, which was called souling, was taken up by children who would go door to door asking for gifts such as food, money, or ale. In Scotland and Ireland, the children would offer to perform a song, recite a poem, tell a joke, or perform a trick to receive a gift. This practice was known as guising.

In the American colonies, the celebration of Halloween was limited in colonial New England because of the rigid belief system of the Protestants. In Maryland and the southern colonies, the celebration of Halloween was more common. As America grew, customs from the different ethnic groups from European settlers and traditions from the Native Americans mixed to create an American version of Halloween.

The first Halloween celebrations in American were called play parities. In the southern colonies, play parties were held to celebrate the harvest. At the parties, people told ghost stories and each other’s fortunes. By the second half of the 19th century, immigrants from Ireland, who were fleeing the Potato Famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween. Borrowing from the European traditions, Americans began to dress in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money. 

In the late 1800s, Americans moved to make Halloween more about community get-togethers rather than about ghosts, playing pranks, and witchcraft. Halloween parties for children and adults became the way to celebrate Halloween. These parties focused on playing games, eating seasonal foods, and wearing costumes. Playful pranks were also a part of Halloween, especially in the countryside. Pranksters would put farmers’ wagons on the roof, uproot vegetables in gardens, and tip over outhouses. People were encouraged to remove any of the frightening elements out of their Halloween celebrations, which caused Halloween to lose some of its superstitious and religious meaning by the end of the twentieth century.

By the 1920s, pranks had become the Halloween activity for young people. The Great Depression exacerbated the problem and caused Halloween mischief to develop into vandalism, physical assaults, and other acts of violence. To limit the violence, community organizations and neighborhood families began to organize carnivals, costume parades, or community parties. This is when trick-or-treating began to develop. Communities would pool their resources to have house-to-house parties. The first house may give out a costume, the next house might give out a treat, and the next house may even set up a haunted house in their basement.

During World War II, sugar rationing temporarily ended trick-or-treating because there were fewer treats to hand out. Young tricksters also reduced the vandalism because they made pledges to support the soldiers abroad by not engaging in vandalism on Halloween. By the 1950s, Halloween had grown a lot tamer, but the mischief did not totally disappear. During this period, the practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Today, according to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend $10.14 billion on Halloween candy.

Next up for the Fremont County Museum

Oct 30, 3-5 pm at the Dubois Museum, “Halloween at the Museum”

Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Sept 24 thru December 30, 9-5 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “The Arapaho Way” By Sara Wiles

Photography on exhibit in the Western Gallery through December

Thru October, 9-5 Monday-Saturday, at the Pioneer Museum, “Joseph Scheuerle Western Art Exhibit”

Handle With Care: Reed Schell

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander, and the Riverton Museum need your financial support. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits, and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2ndRm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.