The evolution of Halloween traditions

Some modern Halloween festivities have their roots in Celtic history. Illustration: April Kinney · The Sentry

Some modern Halloween festivities have their roots in Celtic history.
Illustration: April Kinney · The Sentry

With Halloween lurking just around the corner, many might wonder where their American Halloween traditions originated. Why do people carve pumpkins? Why do people dress up in costumes? Who thought candy corn was a good idea? From the beginning of these traditions around 2,000 years ago to now, Halloween has gone through numerous changes to become the holiday everyone knows today. 

The holiday was first called Samhain and celebrated by the Celts who believed that the veil between the living and the dead disappeared on October 31st, allowing those who have passed on to come back to earth on this terrifying night. They made offerings to their deities in bonfires to keep themselves safe from the spirits as well as celebrate the year’s harvest. Eventually, the Romans and Christians invaded and combined their holidays, named Feralia, with Samhain. The transition from a night of pranks to a night of candy happened over hundreds of years. The holiday became most family friendly around the 1800s, in the United States especially  due to a push from the Catholic church and eventually from companies selling candy as well. 

The tradition of dressing up in costumes can also be tracked all the way back to the Celt’s version of Samhain. When dancing around giant bonfires, they would not only make offerings, but wear costumes made of animal fur and bones to ward off harmful spirits. It was quite a different story than today’s costumes of pirates and superheroes. 

Many believe bobbing for apples came about when the Romans mixed their harvest traditions with the Celt’s Samhain. Their goddess of fruit and trees is symbolized by an apple. In some places, it became part of a matchmaking competition. The first woman to get an apple when bobbing would be the first to marry. 

Trick or treating started when poorer people would go to wealthy houses and ask for pastries in exchange for praying for their dead family members. Eventually, children began doing this as well and performed tricks, such as singing, in exchange for small treats. Although the origin of this saying is unknown, it became popular and a well-established part of Halloween culture in the United States at some point in the 1950s. 

The tradition of carving pumpkins came from the tale of “Stingy Jack” who tricked the Devil so many times that God would not allow him into heaven and the Devil would not let him into hell, so he wanders the earth with a single burning coal. People carve pumpkins, or turnips, in order to ward away uncouth spirits like Jack. Original Jack O’ Lanterns were turnips and potatoes rather than pumpkins. 

Candy Corn was introduced around World War I when massive wheat shortages rocked the country. In an attempt to get more people to eat corn, this candy was marketed towards the American population as sweet treats that were cheap to get. It was not until the 50s that this candy became associated with Halloween. 

Halloween was once a holiday for drinking and commending the harvest. While many still drink, it has become a much more family friendly, candy-oriented celebration. However, even centuries since the beginning of the holiday, no one can get away without a spook. 

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