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Halloween is a holiday associated with candy, ghosts, trick or treating, and the supernatural observed on October 31. The name is shortened from All Hallows' Eve. "Hallow" means saint. As this explanation suggests, Halloween is observed on the day before All Saints' Day.

Connecting Halloween to pagan festivals was once a way to discredit Catholic practice. In modern times, the same theories serve a neo-pagan agenda. Both groups end up portraying the devoutly Catholic Ireland of the 18th and 19th centuries as a land of paganism.

The earliest descriptions of Halloween as a festival refer, not to Ireland at all, but to late 18th century Scotland. The festival combines elements of several holidays that were suppressed in the 16th century as a result of the Reformation. The spread of the holiday owes much to a poem written by Robert Burns in 1785. With the Industrial Revolution crushing numerous long-established traditions, the Victorians turned to Halloween to retain connection with the past. The modern child-oriented version of the holiday was established by the early 1900s.


"Hallow" means saint. All Saints' Day, November 1, was formally called "Hallowmas" or "All Hallows." "Eve" means the day before. "Hallows' Eve," which became "Hallowe'en" in Scottish usage, is therefore the day before All Saints' Day, i.e. October 31.

The earliest mention of Halloween in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1556 entry in Chronicle of Greyfriars. This entry spells the word as "Halhalon evyn." [1] In Measure for Measure (1603) by William Shakespeare, Pompey asks Froth if another character died on "Hallowmas." Froth responds "All-hallond eve," meaning that the character died on the day before All Saints' Day.[2]

As the word is used to indicate a date rather than a festival in both of these examples, it is likely that the festival was not known in England at this time.


Carved pumpkin.
In the United States, Halloween is known for trick-or-treating. This traditionally involves children dressing in costumes and going to various locations, generally houses, requesting candy at each.

Colors orange and black are associated with Halloween as well as costumes of witches, ghosts, famous monsters, skeletons, and devils. Seasonal foods include caramel apples, pumpkins, pumpkin pie, caramel corn, and candies. Black commonly represents death. Orange represents the harvest and reflects the influence of Samhain.


All Saints' Day

The early church remembered saints and martyrs collectively on various dates. Ephrem the Syrian mentions a feast held on May 13 at Edessa around 359. Pope Bonifice IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to "Saint Mary and all the martyrs" on this date around 609.[3]

Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter's Basilica to "all the saints" on November 1 around 731. The Northumbrian monk Bede promoted the new date in his Martyrology. Around 835, Gregory IV asked Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious to proclaim a feast on this date.[4]

All Saints' Day is mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for 1083.[5]

Scottish origins

When the Reformation swept Scotland in May 1559, All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day (Nov. 2), and other Catholic holidays were suppressed. It was thought that the living could help the souls of the dead escape purgatory on All Souls' Day by lighting bonfires and by other activities. Bonfires are one of the oldest and most persistent Halloween observances, so this practice could have transferred.


Worried that a Halloween bonfire might get out of hand, the Cupar Presbytery in Fife issued this order in 1649:

It is recommended to severall brethren to be carefull to intimat in their several kirkis, wpon the Sabaths immediatly before Midsommer and hallowewen, that no fyres be set on, wpon these nightis.[6]
Englishman Thomas Pennant gave an account of the Halloween bonfires that he witnessed on a visit to Scotland in 1772. Such bonfires were used to remove refuse after the harvest:
Hallow eve is also kept sacred: as soon as it is dark, a person sets fire to a bush of broom fastened round a pole; and, attended with a crowd, runs round the village. He then flings it down, keeps great quantity of combustible matters in it, and makes a great bonfire. A whole tract is thus illuminated at the same time, and makes a fine appearance.[7]


Halloween skull.jpg
The Scottish ballad "The Young Tamlane" tells the story of Janet, who is made pregnant by Tamlane. Tamlane is then stolen by the fairies. "The night it is good Hallowe'en, When fairy folk will ride," Tamlane tells Janet.[8]

The ballad is mentioned by Robert Wedderburn in 1549.[9] The lyrics were collected and published by David Herd in 1769.[10] Sir Walter Scott published the classic version in 1803.[11]

The enlightened 18th century

With the Enlightenment, belief in ghosts, goblins, and witches waned. Scotland's last execution for witchcraft was in 1706 and the last trial was in 1727. In the late 18th century, the supernatural beings that had terrified previous generations were gradually reduced to folklore. The Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759 marked the end of the Jacobite wars and the beginning of a period of Anglo-Scottish reconciliation.

The poetry of John Mayne and Robert Burns

A poem written in 1780 by John Mayne of Dumfries describes a Scottish Halloween festival. The poem mentions both pranks and trick or treating. “There’s few [festivals] in Scotland held mair dear,” it says.[12]

Mayne gave an explanation of the holiday in a footnote:

Hallow-E'en, or Holy Eve, is the evening previous to the celebration of All Saints. That it is propitious to the rites of divination, is an opinion still common in many parts of Scotland.
Mayne's poem inspired Robert Burns to write "Hallowe’en" in 1785. Burns is sometimes described as, "Scotland's favorite son." He gave an extended description of the celebration. "Upon that night, when fairies light," according to the poem. It mentions fairies and mischief making, but also cutting apples and winnowing corn. So it seems that the Scottish holiday had retained features of a harvest festival. As poetry, it is overly long and not among Burns's best. But the poem is carefully studied by those interested in Scottish folklore and festivals.[13]

Victorian revivalism

If the holiday itself originated in Scotland, the eerie rituals of the modern Halloween celebration are the child of Victorian England. The Victorians were fond of reviving quaint customs that never were, and Halloween costume parties became popular in the late 19th century. An illustrated guide published in 1887 provided costume ideas.[14]
The Coligny calendar is a Celtic calendar discovered in the French town of Coligny in 1897


That Halloween originated as the day before All Saints' Day might seem a straightforward explanation. But popular history points to another source: The pagan festival of Samhain, observed by the ancient Celts on November 1.[15]

The earliest mention of Samhain in surviving literature is found in "The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain," which dates from the tenth or eleventh centuries. It portrays Samhain as a harvest festival held at "summer's end":

[The young men of Ulster] used to keep that festival every year; nor was there anything in the world that they would do at that time except sports, and marketings, and splendours, and pomps, and feasting and eating; and it is from that custom of theirs that the Festival of the Samhain has descended, that is now held throughout the whole of Ireland.[16]

While others partied, Ulster hero Cuchulain was recovering from injuries and receiving an extended vision of Mag Mell, the Plain of Delight, a Celtic version of the Elysian fields.

American Halloween

Although Halloween is often connected to Irish immigration, the holiday entered mainstream American culture in the late 19th century and in Protestant settings, as Karen Sue Hybertsen shows in her thesis.[17] This suggests that Victorian revivalism is a more likely source of the holiday than Irish immigration.

By the middle of the 19th century, Americans substituted pumpkins for turnips and secular costumes for those of saints. By the 1920s, there were community efforts to sanitize the carnival spirit and reduce vandalism. Trick-or-treating became common around 1940. It further transformed Halloween into a rite of consumerism and moving the age profile to younger children.

World War II

Halloween flourished as an inexpensive fall festival that did not involve travel. Cities made it into "Conservation Day" and Halloween parties were enlisted in the war effort. Civic parties were held with patriotic admission prices, such as 150 pounds of salvaged paper. Towns turned Halloween parades into celebrations of civic volunteering, featuring Red Cross Units, Air Raid Wardens, and Auxiliary Police Units, all in costume. The climax of the parade was typically a War Bond Auction with prizes donated by local merchants and sold for war bond pledges.[18]


Starting in the 1960s trick-or-treating declined in some places. It was closely monitored because of (false) rumors of poisoned treats.;[19] "The Razor Blade in the Apple" was a made-up urban legend that truly frightened parents,[20] and in the 1990s the holiday has increasingly drawn upon the cult-horror genre for its inspiration. Halloween in America by the late 20th century was a big moneymaker for candy makers and costumers.


Lagartijo (Dandy) by José Guadalupe Posada.
Mexico's counterpart to Halloween, the Day of the Dead, corresponds to the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day on Nov. 1–2. In the English speaking world, these holidays were suppressed during the Reformation. As a result, traditions associated with them have transferred to Halloween.

Scholars argue that the skeletons, skulls and the other morbid imagery of the Day of the Dead originated with the danse macabre of the Renaissance. Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746 - 1828) and Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada (1851 - 1913) helped revive this style. Unaware of this history, modern Mexicans generally see the holiday as an aspect of their Aztec heritage.[21]

The celebration of the Day of the Dead has come to symbolize national unity. Even though the festival has always had materialistic elements such as the sugar paste afteniqué figures, traditionally given to children, cultural nationalists have upheld the Mexican Day of the Dead religious rituals as a contrast to the economic and materialist motives behind American Halloween traditions. These cultural nationalists insist that Halloween activities, which have entered across Mexico's northern border, profaning Day of the Dead celebration.[22]

Further reading

External links


  1. Chronicle of Greyfriars (1556) 17 “Thys yere the towne of Depe was tane [taken] by the Armenobis [Armeniacs] on Halhalon evyn.”
  2. Shakespeare, William, Measure for Measure (1603), ii. i. 130.
  3. Smith, C., "All Saints' Day," New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003).
    In classical times, the Romans observed Lemuria on May 9, 11, and 13. A lemure is a restless spirit, similar to a vampire. Patriarch John Chrysostom (d. 407) put All Saints' Day on the Sunday after Pentecost. The Orthodox Church still celebrates on this date.
  4. Strayer, Joseph R., "All Saints' Day," Dictionary of the Middle Ages, (1983).
    Cross, F. L., and Livingstone, E. A., "All Saints' Day", The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1997).
    Smith, C., "All Saints' Day," New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003).
    Some authorities suggest that Gregory IV moved All Saints' Day from May 13 to November 1 to thin out Easter-related crowds in Rome. But May 13 continued to be observed as "All Martyrs' Day" until the 11th century.
  5. 1083: O.E. Chron. (Laud MS.) Translated as "And in this same year departed Matilda, queen of King William, on the day after All-Hallow-mass." See "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Eleventh Century".
  6. Cupar Presbytery Minutes, 8 March 1649, CH2/82/1.
  7. Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland, Part II (London, 1772), p. 47.
  8. For a brief version of the story, see "Tamlane: A Story from an Old Scotch Ballad" (1920) by Katharine Pyle.
  9. Wedderburn, Robert, The Complaynt of Scotlande (1549). Wedderburn lists “The tayl of the yong Tamlene” among various songs and ballads.
  10. Herd, David, Ancient and Modern Scots Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c., 1769, “Kertonha, or, The Fairy Court.”
  11. Walter, Scott, Sir, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, "The Young Tamlane", p. 337.
  12. Mayne, John, "Halloween" (1780).
  13. A Short Analysis of Robert Burns’s ‘Halloween’", Interesting Literature
  14. "26 Halloween Costume Ideas from an 1887 Guide to Fancy Dress."
  15. For a "popular history" account, see "Samhain: Seven facts about the spooky Irish festival which became Halloween", Irish Post.
  16. Maelmuiri mac Ceileachair, "The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain." The translation is from Heroic Romances of Ireland. Vol I. A. H. Leahy, ed. London: David Nutt, 1905. pp. 57-85.
  17. Hybertsen (1993), p. 10.
  18. Hybertsen (1993), p. 152
  19. There was only one confirmed case of Halloween candy being poisoned resulting in a child's death; the culprit was the child's father seeking to collect on an insurance policy, who was arrested and ultimately executed for his actions.
  20. Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi, "The Razor Blade in the Apple: the Social Construction of Urban Legends," Social Problems 1985 32(5): 488-499
  21. Gonzales, Agustin Sanchez, "Día de muertos, ¿Tradición prehispánica o invención del siglo XX?, 2 Relatos Históricos de México, Nov. 2, 2007.
  22. Brandes, Stanley, "The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity," Journal of American Folklore 1998 111(442): 359-380, in QUESTIA