At the mere mention of Halloween, one’s mind is filled with images of wild costumes, haunted houses and buckets full of candy.
But where does this ghoulish holiday come from?
Because of the mingling and evolving of traditions from different cultures over the years, the origins of Halloween are debatable. Some historians note possible roots in ancient Celtic rituals, related to the coming of winter ,because of the holiday’s association with death and opening the door from this world to the next.
According to Tom Prasch, a professor and Chair of the History Department, others attribute the origin of Halloween to medieval Catholic traditions. All Hallows Day (All Saints’ Day) on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2 are feast days established by the church to remember the saints in prayer and ring bells for those who have recently passed away. All Hallows’ Eve on October 31 was to mark the last day before spirits moved on to the afterlife.
“This comes to be associated with, among other things, the baking of ‘soul cakes’… (a possible origin for ‘trick or treat’, or at least the treat part), the lighting of candles for the dead, and commemorative feasting…” said Prasch.
Prasch also noted that, “on the spookier side”, this is where the idea of ghosts rising from their graves to pull pranks on humans derived from. They did this as they made their way to the next life. People then wore disguises to make themselves unrecognizable in order to fool the spirits – the trick part of ‘trick or treat.’
Other than the Puritans, who rejected Halloween, Americans have been participating in the holiday since the colonial era. The arrival of Catholic immigrants, during the 19th century, secured a date on the calendar for its celebration.
“American innovations began to appear pretty early. That ‘trick or treat’ phrase is ours, for example, dating from the 1920s or ‘30s,” said Prasch.
According to Prasch, Halloween has not been a sizable American holiday until recently. Halloween themed parades arrived in New York in the 1970s and the older tradition of Halloween parties was revived in the 1980s.
In America, there has been some blending of traditions between Halloween and Mexico’s Day of the Dead. While it has roots in Catholic ritual traditions, the Day of the Dead also exhibits customs of older Aztec rituals. Today, we can see that particular influence in costumes and decorations that involve skeletal depictions.
Most recently, the Halloween celebration barely resembles the activities it originated from (pagan, Catholic, and otherwise).
“The main trends over the last few decades have been the commercialization and the secularization of the holiday, thus no one is praying for much of anyone or thinking of passages from Purgatory or going to mass,” said Prasch.