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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

Halloween – Its Origins and History in Colonial and Early America



Spooky season is upon us! Halloween is the second most popular festival in the United States. In 2023, 73% of Americans plan to celebrate Halloween, up from 69% in 2022. Halloween is also the second-biggest retail holiday in the U.S., behind only Christmas. In 2021, Americans spent more than $10.1 billion on Halloween, and to reach an all-time high of more than 12 billion U.S. Dollars in 2023. But what are the origins of this festival and how has it been observed in North America throughout the Colonial and Early Republic periods? The answer may surprise you.


The Origins of Halloween

Scholars have often noted how these modern-day celebrations of Halloween have origins in Samhain, (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) means "summer's end" in the Celtic language. In contemporary Irish Gaelic, Halloween is still known as "Oíche Shamhna", or Eve of Samhain. In old Germanic and Celtic societies, what we call equinoxes and solstices marked the middles of the season, not the beginnings. Therefore, if an autumnal equinox, winter solstice, spring equinox and a summer solstice existed, there was also the beginning of autumn, winter, spring, and summer. All these dates were important. Summer's end, which meant the beginning of winter was a momentous time for people who survived on plants grown in the field and animals that were kept in pastures.


The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. For them, this date marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold, winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the other worldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

Modern Celebration of Samhain
Modern Celebration of Samhain

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.


According to early Irish literature, as well as traditional folklore collected in the 19th century, Samhain of long ago was a time for people to come together, under a command of peace, to feast, tell stories, make social and political claims, engage in important sacred rituals and, perhaps most importantly, to commune with the dead. The traditional, pre-Christian realm of the dead was referred to as the Otherworld. The Otherworld was not somewhere far away, but rather overlapping with the world of the living. The Irish beliefs about the Otherworld were detailed and complex. It is full of magic, of witchcraft, of speaking with the dead as well as seeing into the future. The dead were traditionally believed to continue to see the living, although the living could only occasionally see them. The most prominent occasion would be on Samhain itself, when lines between the Otherworld of the dead and the realm of the living were weakened.


Not only were there particular days that one might encounter the dead, but places as well, these being the ancient megalithic sites. These sites are known in Irish Gaelic as “” sites, but there is another meaning of the word "sí" in Irish, that being the spirits of the mounds. This is often translated into English as “fairies,” which loses a great deal of meaning. “Fairies” in Ireland are spirits deeply connected with the realm of the dead, the mounds, and, perhaps most especially, Samhain. The connection can be witnessed in the figure of the banshee – or "bean sí", in Irish – an important mythological figure in Irish folklore, believed to be heard wailing with grief directly before the death of a family member. With Irish “bean” meaning simply “woman,” the banshee is thus a female spirit of the mounds, and a ruler of the realm of the dead.

19th Century Illustration of a Banshee
19th Century Illustration of a Banshee

The "sí" spirits are not only spirits of the dead, but they are also a particular aristocracy of the dead, who host the dead with feasting, merriment, and eternal youth, often at the age-old megalithic sites. In Irish lore, they are powerful and dangerous, able to give great gifts or exact great damage. They once ruled Ireland, according to folklore, and now they rule the world of the dead.


By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic territory. During the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.


According to early Irish literature, as well as traditional folklore collected in the 19th century, Samhain of long ago was a time for people to come together, under a command of peace, to feast, tell stories, make social and political claims, engage in important sacred rituals and, most importantly, to commune with the dead.


In pre-Christian times, the traditional Celtic realm of the dead was referred to as the Otherworld. The Otherworld was not somewhere far away, but rather overlapping with the world of the living. The Irish beliefs about the Otherworld were detailed and complex. It was full of magic, of witchcraft, of speaking with the dead as well as seeing into the future. The dead were traditionally believed to continue to see the living, although the living could only occasionally see them. The most prominent occasion would be on Samhain itself, when lines between the Otherworld of the dead and the realm of the living were weakened.

The Celtic Otherworld
The Celtic Otherworld

Christians associated the Celtic supernatural phenomena with evil, defining fairies as fallen angels (devils) and branding followers of the old religion as witches (followers of the devil). But in folk belief, these magical traditions remained morally ambiguous. The original Jack-o’-Lantern, for example, was a blacksmith named Jack who was too evil to go to heaven when he died. But Jack outwitted the devil and was barred from hell too, leaving him to wander the earth, lighting his way with a vegetable he had filled with glowing coals. Like poor Jack, fairies in some European stories are excluded from both heaven and hell, having followed Lucifer in rebellion but then changed their minds. Irish writers assert that fairies may steal away children on Halloween, but they may also rescue humans ensnared by witches’ spells.

Stingy Jack, known as Jack-O-Lantern
Stingy Jack, known as Jack-O-Lantern

Despite the best efforts of the church, people continued to celebrate Halloween with traditional bonfires, costumes, treats, and a focus on spirits of the dead. On May 13, 609A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs and moved the observance from May 13 to November 01. By the ninth century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It is widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. The All-Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English “Alholowmesse” meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.


Halloween in America

Halloween in the U.S. was shaped by America’s own harvest season, early European settlers’ well-known fear of witches, and Celtic-inflected customs brought by nineteenth-century Irish immigrants. Celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems there. Halloween was much more common in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the southern colonies. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups, particularly the Irish and Germanic settlers, as well as those of the American Indians, meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.

The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories, and mischief-making of all kinds. Divination party games were therefore popular, many using the fruits of the fall harvest and most directed at helping women figure out who Mr. Right might be. In these games, women “threw apple peelings over their shoulders to determine the initials of their future bridegrooms,” bobbed for apples, or predicted the future from bits of string or roasting chestnuts.

The Headless Horseman Chasing Icabod Crane
The Headless Horseman Chasing Icabod Crane

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. As time went on, old Yankee harvest traditions and beliefs in witchcraft combined with the Halloween traditions of Irish immigrants to America, resulting in a day of spooky suppositions and puckish mischief.


Halloween Traditions and Superstitions

The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” dates to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, the poor would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.

"Souling" on Halloween
"Souling" on Halloween

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. food supplies often ran low, and the short days of winter were full of constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people worried that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.


On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter. For the “friendly spirits” of deceased relatives and friends, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world. Today’s Halloween ghosts are often depicted as more fearsome and malevolent, and our customs and superstitions are scarier too.

Black Cat and Witch's Brew

We avoid crossing paths with black cats, afraid that they might bring us bad luck. This idea has its roots in the Middle Ages, when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats. We try not to walk under ladders for the same reason. And around Halloween, especially, we try to avoid breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks in the road or spilling salt.


But what about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters have forgotten all about? Many of these obsolete rituals focused on the future instead of the past and the living instead of the dead. Many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday - with luck by next Halloween - be married. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it. In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, the story went, represented the girl’s future husband. (In some versions of this legend, confusingly, the opposite was true: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.) Another tale had it that if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made from walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night she would dream about her future husband.

Burning Hazelnuts to Find Your Future Husband
Burning Hazelnuts to Find Your Future Husband

Young women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husbands’ initials; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces. Other rituals were more competitive. At some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first to marry, at others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle.


Today, even though for most of us our daily lives have little connection to agricultural seasons, we often celebrate Halloween by decorating our homes with gourds and corn. We carve pumpkins into the image of Jack-o’-Lantern, even if we don’t know his story. We dress as witches and spirits and other creatures like mummies and zombies that cross the threshold between life and death. Although Halloween originated in Europe, the holiday became the celebration we recognize today when it was brought to America by the early settlers.


Despite all this history, we should not confuse Halloween and its Mexican cousin, Dia de Muertos, a.k.a. Dia de Los Muertos, a 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.


We hope you enjoyed today's post looking at the history of Halloween and its celebration in Colonial America and the Early United States. Please join us again next time when we will look at Herbal Remedies, European and Native American, in Colonial and Early America.

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


References

Carleton, W. (1840, November 21). Irish Superstitions - Ghosts and Fairies. The Irish Penny Journal, 1(21), pp. 164-166.


Carleton, W. (1840, December 12). Irish Superstitions: Ghosts and Faries. The Rival Kempers. The Irish Penny Journal, pp. 188-191.


Carleton, W. (1841, February 20). Irish Superstitions. - No. III. Ghosts and Faries. The Irish Penny Journal, pp. 269-271.


Holms, D. (1910, October). Halloween. The Irish Monthly, pp. 551-553.


Hore, H., & Mac Ritchie, D. (1895, June). Origins of the Irish Superstitions Regarding Banshees and Faries. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, 5(2), 115-129.


MacBain, A. (1885). Celtic mythology and religion. Inverness: A & W Mackenzie.


MacCulloch, J. A. (1911). The Religion of the Ancients Celts. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.


Mullally, E. (2016, November/December). Samhain Revival. Archaeology, pp. 34-37.


Stewart, J. A. (1913). HALLOWE'EN. The Journal of Education, 326-327.

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