Halloween: From Ancient Britain to Gilded Age America

November 23, 2017

The History of Halloween

Although people around the world view Halloween as a thoroughly American holiday, it has a far more complicated story than that. In fact, Halloween is a mash-up of ancient Celtic paganism, early Roman Catholicism, nineteenth-century American immigration, modern suburbanism and commercialism, and much, much more.

It all started about two thousand years ago, when the ancient Celts made sacrifices around sacred bonfires in celebration of the harvest’s end. Think of this as the moment the earth makes its transition from abundant autumnal life to silent wintry death, and—perhaps—a moment when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead are blurred.

When the Roman Empire sprawled into Celtic lands in 43 AD and remained there for the next four hundred years, it mingled culturally with existing pagan rites. After the Roman Empire took on Christianity as its official religion in 313 AD, rather than continue the Celts’ tradition of honoring ancestral spirits, the Church focused instead on honoring religious martyrs. Sometime in the 8th century, the pope named November 1 “All Saints’ Day,” the Middle English term for which was “All-hallowmas.” The night before, October 31, became known as All-hallows Eve—today’s Halloween.

A few particulars of the Celtic and Catholic celebrations stand out as familiar to us today. The Celts left out food and wine as offerings for the dead in order to appease them and prevent them from entering their homes—think of it as the earliest form of trick-or-treating, except instead of little children in colorful costumes arriving at the door, it would be a spirit with malicious intent. This practice of food offerings was replaced later in the Christianized version of the holiday by “soul cakes,” food given to the poor rather than to the dead. “Going a-souling” became a child-friendly activity within a community where beggars would go from door to door to receive food or alms.

Dressing up has early roots as well. Fearful they would encounter evil spirits on this unusual night, people wore masks to conceal their faces and stay safely unrecognized. Also, the “trick” in trick-or-treat owes its presence to a centuries-old history of pranks and jokes—perhaps a reference to the kinds of acts people feared from spirits on their one, restless night back among the living. These Halloween pranksters also wore masks to conceal their identities—except this time they would have been more concerned with being recognized by the living. And finally, the harvest has always contributed greatly to the All-hallows Eve atmosphere, with games, parties, and superstitions involving autumn produce such as apples, turnips, and nuts.

Student Halloween party at the University of Southern California, ca. 1890

Student Halloween party at the University of Southern California, ca. 1890. USC History Collection.

A Halloween dinner in Vermont, ca. 1900

A Halloween dinner in Vermont, ca. 1900. The Poultney Historical Society.

Halloween in America

So how did these traditions migrate from the British Isles to America? An intense period of immigration in the mid-nineteenth century (a period that gave Chicago—and other major cities—its historic Irish, Italian, German, and Swedish neighborhoods) brought Old World traditions to a new country. Millions of Irish in particular, fleeing the potato famine of 1846, had inherited the blended Celtic-Roman tradition of celebrating the dead, and helped make Halloween an American tradition by the end of the nineteenth century, during the period known as the Gilded Age. House parties and celebrations in Irish- or Scottish-American homes often included retellings of legends from the old country or a reading of Robert Burns’s poem ”Halloween.” They influenced their neighbors to join the fun of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food, treats, and money. And of course, pranks abounded as well, mainly harmless ones such as taking a neighbor’s gate off its hinges. 

People in the Gilded Age were also fascinated with death. Group séances, spiritualist mediums, and sentimental memento mori were all wildly popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other, more frightening tales of the era reveled in the possibility that the dead may return to earth and speak to the living. This existing trend in the cultural imagination may have made people more receptive to Halloween taking root in American life.

Howard Chandler Christy, Halloween, 1915.

Howard Chandler Christy, Halloween, 1915.

1930s newspaper headline in The Oregonian

1930s newspaper headline in The Oregonian, in which columnist Marian Miller advocating for a safer Halloween holiday. To read the full article, click here.

The Gilded Age was, if anything, an age of industry in America. The rise of factories, railroad networks, mining operations, and commercial farming defined an era of unprecedented economic prosperity. Between innovative industrial processes in factories and extra spending money at home, the commercial delights of Halloween were soon as much a staple as the old traditions. The first producer of candy corn, a sugary nod to autumnal harvest, was the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia in the 1880s. Dennison Manufacturing Company published its first catalog for Halloween decorations and stationary, including tips for holiday entertaining, in 1909.

After the turn of the century, the Gilded Age faded into the Progressive Era. In the same spirited mood of reform that would address public issues and fears such as sanitation, poverty, and alcohol consumption, some Americans agitated for change. They wanted to steer the focus of the Halloween holiday away from the dark, superstitious—and, many felt, sacrilegious—spirits and witches of its Celtic roots. They also feared the increasing intensity of pranks and tricks, which could take on the destructive quality of vandalism, especially where other tensions were present. (A late example comes from 1933, when at the height of the Great Depression young men overturned cars, sawed down telephone poles, and taunted the police.) Newspapers urged people to eliminate the grotesque elements of the holiday in favor of fun games that wouldn’t frighten. Accordingly, traditions like parades and parties increasingly focused on children. In the boom that followed World War II, the mass production of candy and costumes added to the storebought goodies that had begun in the Gilded Age. And so, slowly, Halloween evolved into the not-so-spooky, family-friendly, neighborhood holiday it is today.


History.com, “History of Halloween” 

NPR.org, “Halloween for Adults: A Scary Story” 

HistoricUK.com, “Halloween.” 

Edwardian Promenade, “Halloween in the Gilded Age.” 

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