Historically Halloween

Caroline Nielsen, Lecturer in History & Heritage takes us back to the roots of Halloween…

Halloween is an interesting time of year for historians. Ghosts and ghouls visit our houses to collect tribute, we dress up in outlandish costumes and we share stories about scary ancient beings that go bump in the night. While many people in Britain and Ireland sincerely dislike the festival’s overt commercialism and its perceived ‘Americanism’, this annual celebration of all things spooky is a theatrical piece of living history.

But what, and whose, historical fears are we actually commemorating? We associate Halloween with ghosts and ghouls, but the history of Halloween is actually one of class, social unrest and consumerism.

Halloween as we celebrate today is largely derived from the North American version of the holiday. The strange costumes, parties, street shows, and trick or treating (in its current sugar-driven form) all originated in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America. The bright grinning pumpkin, that icon of all things Halloween, is a plant species originally native only to North America.

But that is not to say that Halloween only originated there. Halloween is an amalgamation of the folklore traditions and individual histories brought together through nineteenth-century mass migration to North America. Each immigrant community each brought with them their own unique regional cultures of religious commemoration, celebration and carnival. Celebrations of All Souls’ and All Saints’ days, the German festival of Walpurgis and Lent carnivals pooled with Scottish and Irish traditions of harvest-time mischief-making and fortune telling.

These traditions had allowed us to confront our deepest fears for centuries. The biggest fear was, of course, death itself. Subsistence farming, frequent disease outbreaks and inadequate medical care meant death was a more frequent visitor to our ancestors’ homes. (Sadly, this is still the case for many people around the world.) Religion and folklore actively reminded people that while life was frail and short, the afterlife and God’s judgement was long and inescapable. This cultural belief found expression in the ‘death’s head’, a skull image regularly carved into church walls and gravestones. This macabre iconography has not left us. When we display our pumpkins with their cute triangle noses and broad toothy smiles, we too are recreating these skulls.

Death was not the only association though. Many people preferred to make their own forms of mischief during their end-of-harvest festivities. Fortune-telling was a popular activity in England and Scotland. On English ‘Nut-crack Night’, young men and women selected a nut from a bowl, secretly named it after their sweetheart and then placed it on the edge of the fire. Those representing true loves would burn brightly whilst fickle lovers would jump and crack in the fire. But again, death was never very far away. This ritual could also determine whether the players were going to die within the coming year and so make their lovers available for a new match.

Perhaps the most notable absence in the early British and Irish accounts is the dead themselves. Historians like Owen Davies have noted that most historical ghosts preferred to manifest between Advent and Epiphany, not Halloween. Death may have been remembered on Halloween, but the dead themselves were not a regular feature in early accounts of Halloween festivities.

As America’s population grew in the late nineteenth century, these regional traditions combined and took on new forms. This was not without hardship, prejudice, and at times, violence. In Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (2002), historian and horror writer David Skal argues that the festivities both reflected, and deflected, America’s social and cultural tensions. Depression-era newspaper accounts in particular complain about the violent antics of adults and children alike. Some Halloween ‘revels’ were simply used as excuses for racist attacks. These tensions influenced the holiday in unexpected and unusual ways. Skal highlights the fact that one of the earliest examples of commercially-produced Halloween candy bears the message ‘stop Halloween pranksters’, an interesting manifestation of middle-class fears that pranksters ‘from the wrong side of town’ would damage their property.

Fortunately, not all Halloween products were as targeted. Many early twentieth-century businesses, quick to notice an opportunity, began designing more homely Halloween products to help people celebrate. Writers like Skal have highlighted the bewildering range of cheap paper items produced for small parties and home-made outfits, many of which are now highly collectable on platforms like eBay. It was this sense of homely fun that firmly linked Halloween with cute bat shapes and smiling pumpkins in our collective imaginations.

Halloween just wouldn’t be Halloween as we know it without its commercial history. Its strident commercialism does not diminish it as a festival: it is just one more fascinating aspect of its evolving history. I wish everyone a safe and fun 31st October, however you choose (or not) to celebrate it.

NB: I am indebted to David Skal’s book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (2002) for the history of Halloween in early twentieth-century America.

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