By Rebecca Tischler, Reference Librarian
Originally published on October 31, 2014
We all love It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but were you aware that the first Jack O’Lanterns were carved out of turnips?
Did you know that the horrifying mask worn by Michael Myers in the Halloween movie was actually a William Shatner Star Trek mask?
Halloween is the second highest grossing commercial holiday after Christmas. The National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts Halloween spending this year—including candy, costumes, and decorations—will hit $7.4 billion. Candy will account for more than $2 billion of that amount and a quarter of all candy bought in the U.S. is for Halloween.
But what are the origins of this creepy holiday? Here’s what we do know about the history of Halloween: it wasn’t created by the Candy Companies, although they’ve certainly profited, nor was it created by the toilet paper companies (though I do wonder how much money they make with all the teepeeing).
The history of Halloween is a rather vague and confusing tale, mainly because no one can seem to agree on how Halloween evolved from a harvest pagan New Year celebration, to the candy gorging and anything goes costumes of today. One thing that everyone seems to agree on, even though there has never been a proven connection, is that modern Halloween begins with the Celtic festival of Samhain (although, they don’t know much about that either).
Scholars are pretty sure that Samhain was an annual celebration of the end of the harvest months to honor the Celtic deities (as well little green leprechauns and tricky fairies). It was also a time to gather resources and slaughter livestock (or maybe they were sacrifices – who knows) in preparation for the upcoming winter months. Some say it was the Celtic New Year. It was also believed that this was the day that the veil between the dead and living was thinnest, and the dead could cross over. They would celebrate this day with bonfires, food laid out for the dead, and costumes to blend with the spirits. Strangely enough, they’re not sure whether these actions were to honor and welcome the dead or to ward off the visiting spirits. Either way, the dead were a big part of the pagan festival.
The second part of Halloween’s history that seems to be agreed on is the attempted Christianization of a pagan celebration. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III assigned the Christian feast, All Saints Day, to November 1, as a day was to honor all Christian saints and martyrs. It is generally believed that this edict was meant to cause All Saints Day to replace Samhain. However, instead of killing off the pagan traditions, these two celebrations combined to create All-Hallows Eve. The holiday was no longer about the Celtic deities, or about the Christian Saints. The previously celebrated supernatural creatures were now thought to be evil and the main focus of the holiday was about the wandering dead.
The third fact that seems to be agreed upon is that trick-or-treating came from another two practices that eventually combined. The first is “mumming”, a medieval practice where people would disguise themselves and go door-to-door asking for food in exchange for “tricks” (basically they were putting on shows and clowning around). The second is the practice of leaving out food and offerings for the dead in order to gain favor with them, which is believed to be part of the original Samhain tradition. So basically, we give kids candy in exchange for entertainment, and to satisfy the little goblins that knock on our door.