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A History of Halloween: Tricks, Treats and Enduring Traditions

A History of Halloween: Tricks, Treats and Enduring Traditions
October 31, 2019 By: Kelsie Torrenti Paul, Manager of School Learning

A History of Halloween: Tricks, Treats and Enduring Traditions

Like most holidays, Halloween has a long history. The various traditions that we associate with Halloween—trick-or-treating, costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and ghost stories—all have roots in various cultures and holidays that date back centuries. Over the years, as customs blended and influenced one another, Halloween slowly evolved into the celebration we know today.

Halloween’s origins can be traced back thousands of years to Europe, where various cultures had some version of a celebration to mark the changing of the seasons from autumn to winter. In Ireland, the United Kingdom, and parts of northern France, the Celts practiced a festival known as Samhain, during which they marked the coming of the cold, dark, winter months with bonfires and religious rites. The Celts believed that during this time, the line between the living and the dead was blurred, and their ancestors could return to walk the earth. To hide themselves from any unwanted spirits, participants in the festival dressed in animal skins and masks. The Romans held a similar festival, called Feralia, at the end of October to commemorate the dead. When the Romans eventually conquered the Celts, these two festivals merged, and many of their traditions were combined.

The holiday that would become Halloween underwent another transformation with the rise of Christianity. In the early days of the first century, the Catholic Church instituted a festival known as All Saints’ Day, a day to celebrate and honor Christian martyrs and saints, which is observed on November 1. As Christianity spread into northern Europe, Samhain and All Saints’ Day were blended into a new celebration called All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 2. This new holiday combined the Celtic traditions of Samhain—bonfires and parades—with Christian imagery of saints, angels, and devils, which quickly became the most popular choice for costumes. It’s during this period that we can see the origins of the name Halloween. All Saints’ Day was also known as All-Hallows, and the night before it, when the original festival of Samhain was observed, became known as All-Hallows Eve. Over time, as these three celebrations coalesced around the last day of October, Halloween was born.

When Europeans came to North America, they brought their beliefs and traditions, including All-Hallows Eve, with them. The autumnal celebration was not immediately widespread, however; it was primarily observed in the southern British colonies as a way to celebrate the harvest with bonfires, storytelling, dancing, and singing, reminiscent of Samhain. It was not until the mid-1800s, with a fresh wave of Irish and Scottish immigrants coming to American cities, that Halloween became popular throughout the country.

Harpers New Monthly Magazine, vol. 81 (June-Nov 1890), page 831. Courtesy of the University of California.

By the Gilded Age, All-Hallows Eve’s ancient traditions were beginning to develop into the modern customs we know today, but with decidedly mischievous overtones. During this period in the United States, the more traditional means of celebrating Halloween with bonfires and honoring the dead had been supplanted by pranks. The earliest form of Halloween pranking is likely also the origin of another popular Halloween pastime—carving jack-o-lanterns. Young boys carved turnips with ghoulish faces and put a candle inside, so they glowed. Then they jumped out at people in the dark or tied strings to the turnips so it seemed that these faces could fly through the air, terrifying anyone who was unlucky enough to cross their path. As time went on and Halloween became more widespread, the pranks became more elaborate, and increasingly destructive. In rural areas, Halloween pranksters let cattle out of their enclosures, overturned wagons, or damaged gardens. In the growing cities of the turn-of-the-century, vandalism became the norm on Halloween night, as rabble-rousers set small fires, defaced buildings, or harassed passersby on the street. Pittsburgh, as a booming urban center in that era, was not immune to these types of high-jinx, which were well documented in the local newspapers.

Pittsburgh Dispatch (Pittsburgh, Pa), November 1, 1892. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Pittsburgh Dispatch (Pittsburgh, PA), November 3, 1889. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While tricks and vandalism were becoming an increasing problem in cities and towns across the country, many Halloween revelers chose to channel their spirit for the holiday into more peaceful celebrations. Costume parties became popular across the nation, mostly among young adults, as children were not yet the intended audience for Halloween festivities. While we do not know if the Fricks ever attended one of these Halloween parties, the evening’s social happenings around the city of Pittsburgh, particularly among the Fricks’ neighbors on the wealthy and fashionable East End, were reported in the newspapers. In the mid-20th century, a conscious effort was made to rebrand Halloween as a more community-based, family event. Towns and cities all over the nation began throwing Halloween parties in town halls and community centers, encouraging families with children to attend. By the 1950s, trick-or-treating became commonplace—the idea being that bribing children with candy might keep them from pulling pranks on their neighbors. Although trick-or-treating served as a practical strategy for curbing vandalism, it does also trace its origins back to the original celebrations of Samhain and All Souls’ Day. During Samhain, it was common to leave food out as an offering to the dead, and on All Souls’ Day, poorer citizens went door-to-door asking for small confections called “soul cakes.”

Young adults attend a Halloween party in Millvale, 1914. Courtesy of the Reiber-Sachs Collection, Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

In the 1970s and 80s, Halloween made its final evolution into the holiday we know today. Trick-or-treating, costume parades, and horror movie screenings became common all over the United States. With each passing year, Halloween’s popularity continued to grow, and this year, according to the National Retail Foundation, it is estimated that 172 million Americans will celebrate the holiday. While a lot has changed about how we celebrate Halloween, many of the original traditions and spirit of the holiday live on in one form or another as we celebrate the spookiest night of the year.



“Halloween 2019.” History.com, originally published 18 Nov. 2009, updated 28 Oct. 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.

Klein, Christopher. “Halloween Was Once So Dangerous that Some Cities Considered Banning It.” History.com, originally published 25 Oct. 2017, updated 31 Aug. 2018. https://www.history.com/news/halloween-was-once-so-dangerous-that-some-cities-considered-banning-it.

Jordan, Thomas. “Social media influencing near-record Halloween spending.” National Retail Federation, 25 Sept. 2019. https://nrf.com/media-center/press-releases/social-media-influencing-near-record-halloween-spending.

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