20 September 2015

Frightful Fun– a Short History of Halloween

by Leigh Lundin

Halloween has long been a festival of the dying year or, as the Celts (Irish, not Boston) viewed it, a conjunction of seasons where death met the birth of the then new year, the 1st of November. The Church frowned upon things not churchly, but the leadership was socially astute. While officially opposing syncretization, the Church often absorbed popular pagan festivals into Christian celebrations, such as turning the Roman Saturnalia into Christmas and fertility festivals into Easter. Thus the ancient Irish observation of their new year became the Christian All Saints Day.

Roman Holiday

The present date of Hallowmas and its vigil Hallowe'en was likely determined by Pope Gregory III (731-741), then extended throughout the Frankish Empire in 835 by King Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. In the 11th century, Abbot Odilo of Cluny established the November date of All Souls Day to pray for the dead. Allhallowtide bridged the three holidays as observed by adherents around the world. The night before All Saints Day, the 1st of November, became a commemoration of all people hallowed– Hallowed Evening or Hallowe’en. The calendar appears as
31 Oct
All Hallows Eve
01 Nov
All Saints Day
02 Nov
All Souls Day

Some religionists don’t observe Halloween because it is Christian and others because it’s not Christian enough. Whatever its past, the holiday is based upon a complex and diverse history. The hallowtide holidays have become an exercise of imagination, a chance to reveal and grapple with our inner fear of things that go bump in the night.

The Celtic Connection

According to the History Channel, many practices have lent their observations to our modern holiday, souling and guising.
Much of our tradition came from Irish immigrants and grew out of Samhain (Gaelic pronunciation rhymes with how-when), a pagan fest where people disguised themselves to fool the ghosts and burnt bonfires to keep away the spirits. When the Church instituted All Saints Day, the ancient Celts saw little reason to give up the joy of their autumn celebration.

In medieval England and as far south as Italy, a ritualized form of door-to-door begging was called souling. In return for food and treats, they would offer to sing and pray for the dead. Often a traditional ‘soul cake’ was offered, typically filled with raisins or currants, apples or plums, and flavored with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, or other sweet spices. They were marked with a ‘cross’ (hot-crossed buns) and often served with a tipple of wine.

Modern trick-or-treat carries an implied threat, a hint of blackmail that pranksters might T.P. your house or leave a salamander in your mailbox if you don’t pay off with a candy bar. In the Scottish custom of guising, children dressed in a mask and costume ‘in disguise’ would go house to house and offer a trick or treat– a magic trick, a song, a dance, or a riddle– and the lord of the manor would reward them with fruit, coins, a sweetmeat or cake.

Guy Fawkes
The British tradition of wearing masks while begging for coins on Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night commemorating the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot) may have influenced latter day Halloween celebrations. By the early 19th century, children roamed the streets on the evening of 5 November begging for “a penny for the Guy.”

Robert Browning
Much of our tradition of Halloweening goes back to a famous poem of Robert Browning, Halloween. Read the annotated version.

Jack O’ Lanterns
Bonfires and fire-lit lanterns have long had a Halloween history. Setting fire to ghosts and ghouls dates back centuries in ‘bone fires’, which became known as bonfires. Those may have evolved into setting masks on fire in ‘neep’ or turnip lanterns, where turnips where hollowed out and a lit candle placed inside. Pumpkins in the New World turned out to be much more convenient for hollowing and pumpkin lanterns have made their way back to Scotland, Ireland, and northern Britain. Some people used potato lanterns in much the same way called ‘tattie bogles’.

The Mexican Connection

Norte Américanos may be unaware of the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival of our neighbor to the south. This Mexican form of Halloween is also celebrated on 31 October and their larger All Saints and All Souls festival as part of Hallowmas or Allhallowtide.

The 1st of November celebrates the loss of little children, Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") but also as Día de los Angelitos, Day of Little Angels. The 2nd of November is the actual Day of the Dead.

The Mexican tradition mirrors our own in many ways with ghouls, ghosts, and skeletons. Like our Celtic ancestors, they light bonfires, which we continue at homecomings and on a small scale with jack-o’-lanterns. The Mexican season is even more strongly associated with the color orange. In the US and lower Canada, the leaves turn and we celebrate with pumpkins and squash. Mexico celebrates with red-orange cempasúchitls– marigolds of the Aztecs.

Our North American holidays grew out of auld world traditions, but American and Mexican enhancements have influenced the rest of the globe, linking prayer for the dead, mitigating fright with fun.


  1. Great history of Halloween, Leigh. But I think you left out one of the most important elements, Snickers. Always an important part of Halloween, at least at our house. :)

  2. Dang, Paul, you're right: Snickers and Reese Cups. How could I have gone so wrong?

  3. I love Halloween. Every year I need two bags of candy to meet the needs of the trick-or-treaters who visit my house. And then every year, as I'm shopping for candy, I think, maybe this year, I'll get more visitors; will two bags be enough? And I buy more. Last year I bought six bags! (Yes, some was with the hope I'd have extras.) So how many bags did I actually need for the trick-or-treaters last year? Two, as always. I vow to be stronger this year when I candy shopping.

  4. Barb, I buy extras for the same reason. There's no such thing as too many Reese Cups. As Paul suggested, not only do I like Snickers, but I found the almond Snickers to be extra tasty.

  5. I always make sure that I have chocolate bars (Hersheys, Snickers, etc.) for the kids - when I was a kid I took it poorly when someone gave me hard candy or gum or (gasp!) apples. Chocolate rules!

  6. …‘bone fires’, which became known as bonfires.
    Love learning a new word derivation.

    Reese’s peanut-butter cups are rather delish, but, without being rude, not too keen on plain ‘Merican chocolate.

    Not usual Halloween fare, but I’d like it known I can be bought with Cheetos.

  7. Eve, I know what you mean. Hard candy and apples seemed like we were tricked, rather than treated.

    ABA, it's true that Hershey's is rather ordinary, but we do make some excellent chocolates, although Belgian, French, or Swiss probably take top prize. Bought with Cheetos, huh? Hmm…


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>