Food for Soul

A Brief History of Halloween

Jolly Hallowe’en. Art and Picture Collection, NYPL. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1587804

by Amanda Pagan, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)October 26, 2018

All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween as it is commonly referred, is a global celebration on October 31. It developed from the ancient Celtic ritual of Samhain, which was, in the simplest terms, a festival celebrating the changing of the seasons from light to dark (summer to winter). This would usually take place around November 1. 

Traditionally, a bonfire would be lit, sweets would be prepared, and costumes would be worn to ward off evil spirits as the ancient Celts believed that, at this time of year, the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest.

Early Christian officials tried to impose their own holiday in an effort to stop their converts from practicing non-Christian festivals. Pope Gregory III deemed November 1, All Saints’ Day, a celebration of Christian martyrs and saints, and November 2 became All Souls Day, a day for remembering the souls of the dead.  All Saints’ Day later became known as All Hallows’ Day, and the previous day, October 31, became known as All Hallows’ Eve, then later, Halloween.

Despite the best efforts of the church, people still continued to celebrate Halloween with traditional bonfires, costumes, treats, and a focus on spirits of the dead.

All this history is not meant to confuse Halloween and its Mexican cousin, Dia de Muertos, a.k.a. Dia de Los Muertos, a completely separate celebration that occurs during the same timeframe, October 31 to November 2. While Halloween focuses on the dark and grim aspects of death, Dia de Muertos is a celebration of the connection between the living and the dead, as well as life after death. 

Illustration of three kids having fun with a pumpkin head costume, entitled The Witch
The Witch. Art and Picture Collection, NYPL. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1587780

While Halloween originated in Europe, the holiday became the celebration we recognize today when it was brought to America by the early settlers. People originally carved out turnips and placed candles inside to ward off evil spirits, but Americans switched from turnips to pumpkins.

In 1820, Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, became one of the first distinctly American ghost stories centered around the holiday. Halloween received its biggest transformation within the last 50 or so years, thanks to the creation of big candy corporations, and, of course, Hollywood.

Because of its association with all things dark, spooky, and undead, Halloween became the go-to holiday for the release of most horror films and television shows. Director John Carpenter’s Halloween(1978) is probably the best example, as it changed the public image of the holiday from a night for children to dress up in silly costumes to a night of pure terror.

Every year, cities and towns all over the world celebrate with festivals, parades, and theme park events. No matter how Halloween is celebrated, or which aspects of the holiday are celebrated, it has become a global phenomenon comparable to Christmas in terms of how widespread and important it is to the public conscience.

If you would like to learn more about Halloween beyond my extremely brief summary, or just want some spooky suggestions, please check out the recommended titles listed below. Happy Halloween! (All summaries adapted from the publishers.)

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