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What is Halloween and how did it originate in the US?

Halloween in the United States has its roots in the traditions of European immigrants, particularly the Irish and Scottish

A child goes trick-or-treat at a restaurant on Halloween, in New York City, 2019.
A child goes trick-or-treat at a restaurant on Halloween, in New York City, 2019.Jeenah Moon (Getty Images)

The word “Halloween” originates from “All Hallow’s Eve,” the evening before the Christian holy days of All Hallow’s Day on 1 November and All Souls’ Day on 2 November. Like other major feasts in Christianity, it had vigils that began the night before. These three days are called Allhallowtide, and during it, Christians honored all saints and prayed for recently departed souls.

It is believed that today’s Halloween traditions were also influenced by folk customs and beliefs from the Celtic-speaking countries, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, which is still celebrated in some places and has pagan origins. Samhain is celebrated on 1 November, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or “the darker half” of the year. It starts on the evening of October 31, since the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. Early literature says that during Samhain, ancient burial mounds were open, which were seen as portals to the Otherworld (the Celtic realm of deities and possibly the dead). Since the modern era, the souls of dead people were thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, and a place was set at the table for them during a meal (similar to today’s Día de Muertos in Mexico). People also began going door-to-door in costume and reciting verses in exchange for food or other gifts.

In the first century AD, the Roman Empire conquered Celtic territories, and their festivals began to blend with Celtic traditions. Some believe that the Roman festivals of Feralia, which honored the dead, and Pomona, which celebrated the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, also influenced Halloween. In the 7th century, the Catholic Church attempted to Christianize pagan festivals, which led to the Saints’ days.

It is believed that Samhain and the Christian Saints holidays influenced each other and the modern Halloween.

How did Halloween develop in the U.S.?

In colonial America, Halloween as we know it was not celebrated. The Puritans of New England strongly opposed the holiday and rejected many other holidays. Some historians say that Anglican colonists in the southern United States and Catholic colonists in Maryland recognized All Hallow’s Eve in their church calendars. However, it didn’t become a major holiday until after mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century.

The Irish and Scottish immigrants brought with them customs such as carving turnips, jack-o’-lanterns, and lighting bonfires, and these traditions began to blend with those of other communities in America (in the U.S., the tradition of carving pumpkins was associated with harvest time but later became part of Halloween). In Cajun areas (influenced by the French), there were night masses, and people put blessed candles on graves, and families sometimes spent the night at the graveside.

People celebrate Allhallow-Eve in Kilkenny (Ireland), in an 1858 illustration.
People celebrate Allhallow-Eve in Kilkenny (Ireland), in an 1858 illustration.Heritage Images (Getty Images)

Although some believed that customs like trick-or-treating originated in the Americas, there are records of children disguising in costume and going from door to door for food or coins in 19th century Scotland. Ruth Edna Kelley, who wrote the first book-length history of Halloween in the U.S., said: “All Halloween customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries.”

Gradually, the holiday assimilated into mainstream society and was celebrated in the whole country by all types of people by the early 20th century (although some religions like Judaism and Islam forbid partaking in Halloween customs). Modern times saw the commercialization of Halloween in the U.S. with retailers promoting Halloween-themed products, costumes, and decorations, and other elements like witches and scarecrows were adopted. In the latter half of the century, Hollywood, horror movies, and popular culture played a role in shaping new traditions, like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and the Halloween film series. Through American influence, this new “version” of Halloween spread to many other countries, including the rest of the American continent, Europe and some parts of Asia.

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