In my last post, I explored the historic origins of Halloween before it came to America, turns out, this secular American holiday started out as a Pagan celebration in the British Isles. Thanks to the influence of the Ancient Romans, I persisted into the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church strategically turned the holiday into a celebration of saints, martyrs, and the faithful dead.
There are tons of similarities between present day Halloween and Halloween as it was celebrated hundreds of years ago—costumes to scare away bad spirits, veneration for the dead, respect for the bounty of all before the long winter, and community unification. For a time, Halloween held religious significance for its participants; yet this is not the case for most Americans.
Let’s dive in, starting with the birth of America.
The religious makeup of the 13 original colonies played a large role in how Halloween evolved in America. The presence of a Catholic population in any one of the colonies directly correlated to the prevalence of Halloween. Conversely, colonies that were settled by Puritans were very unlikely to condone Halloween.
Many northern colonies were anti-Catholic, and I mean staunchly anti-Catholic. The reasons for this Protestant fear and hatred of Catholicism are complicated and vast, way outside the scope of this blog post—just know that many Protestants saw Catholicism as a kind of existential threat. So they did everything they could to keep Catholics out of their colonies. For example, Massachusetts didn’t allow Catholics to inhabit its territory. New Jersey passed a round of explicitly anti-Catholic Laws in 1691 while granting religious freedoms to nearly all types of Protestants. Virginia expressly forbid Catholics from holding public office, carrying firearms, and serving on juries.
So yeah, there weren’t a lot of hybrid Pagan-Catholic festivities in these colonies. But these same colonists observed harvest festivals similar to those held by the ancient Celts. They came together as a community to harvest crops, slaughter livestock, and prepare for the New England winters. Additionally, these colonies are responsible for many modern Halloween traditions, like pumpkin carving and Jack O’ Lanterns. In Europe, people believed Jack O’ Lanterns, carved from turnips and parsnips, frightened away spirits and demons. Pumpkins were a reliable and bountiful source of food in the northern colonies, so the colonists, continuing the tradition from their old homeland, substituted pumpkins for turnips. It was an indication both of the importance of pumpkins to these colonists and the irony that these strict Puritans actively celebrated a ritual with Pagan origins.
Meanwhile, many southern colonies were more accepting of Catholics, which allowed Halloween room to develop. Maryland was the first colony to allow Catholics to live there. Pennsylvania and Delaware also protected Catholics and gave them (some) legal rights. However, the number of Catholics was relatively low. When the first national census was taken in 1790, there were only 65,000 Catholics in the whole population of 4 million. That’s only 1.6% of Colonial America.
Nevertheless, the Catholic presence planted Halloween in the Southern colonies. Because these colonies weren’t as rigidly Puritanical or distrustful of the superstitious aspects of Halloween, they too celebrated Halloween as a harvest festival with added supernatural and mystical elements. They observed Halloween by singing songs, pulling pranks on each other, scaring each other with ghost stories, and playing divination games. And of course, Catholics carried on their own traditions of Allhallowtide, albeit in a more private, subdued setting.
Irish Immigration and the 19th Century
For a while, Halloween in America persisted as a celebration of autumn and the harvest, functioning to prep everyone for winter. But in Europe, Halloween had evolved unimpeded.
American Halloween benefitted from this evolution in the mid-19th century. In 1845, the Great famine descended upon Ireland, killing hundreds of thousands of people and causing many more to flee their homeland. Many immigrated to America and brought their Halloween traditions with them.
Among the rich Halloween customs found in the Ireland, “souling” was one of the most popular. This tradition grew out of the Catholic All Souls’ Day parades and built the foundations for modern trick-or-treating. During souling, the poor would go from door to door, asking for small cakes and sweet breads. In exchange, they promised to pray for the occupants in each house. This activity was condoned by the church, as it served dual purposes of feeding the poor and replacing the ancient ritual of leaving offering for the dead with a church-sanctioned ritual.
Gradually, the Irish tradition of souling evolved past the poor praying in exchange for sweets. People starting throwing festive parties where they conducted bastardized versions of old rites and spells. In was accepted that young ladies would perform a number of small “spells” to conjure clues about who their future husbands would be or how many children they would raise. The ghost stories came roaring back, as did the superstitious games. Soon, youths began dressing in costume and going door to door singing and providing entertainment, capitalizing on souling’s prevalence. But singing quickly gave way to tricks and pranks. Some people were not amused by the pranks and felt these activities promoted vandalism. They fought to limit Halloween as a nuisance.
Towards the end of the 19th century, efforts to curtail Halloween gained momentum. Many communities pushed for Halloween to return to its (American) roots as a family-friendly harvest festival. These communities tried to divorce Halloween from its supernatural traits, costumes, ghost stories, spooky games, and other “grotesqueries.”
These same efforts also tackled the problem of Halloween pranking. In some communities, pranking was so bad that it became a legitimate nuisance. It was a regular occurrence for adolescents to egg houses, knock over outhouses (gross!) and open gates to let livestock roam free. These acts of vandalism damaged properties and cost landowners money. Community leaders made the connection between the vandalism and old beliefs about the spirit world bleeding into the real world on Halloween. Leaders blamed Halloween for providing the justification for the vandalism, which gave them a strong argument for abandoning the supernatural elements of the holiday.
The shift away from Halloween as a spooky celebration back to a harvest festival makes a lot of sense when one considers the rise of Populism and the Farmers’ Movement in late 19th century agricultural communities. As America transitioned towards an urban, industrial society, farmers felt as though they were being left behind. Returning the focus of Halloween to the glory of the American agriculture was a way for farmers to assert their voices and prevent the decline of their way of life.
Halloween in 20th Century America
Despite the best efforts of many farming communities, Halloween remained decidedly unfocused on harvest time in many places. As more and more people moved into cities and towns, large communal gatherings and parades declined in number. Celebrations moved to classrooms and private homes, which made Halloween more of a children’s holiday. With increased print circulation, magazines and ads took advantage of domestic attentions on Halloween and touted it as wholesome, frivolous fun for children. However, parents partook in Halloween, using trick-or-treating as a cheap and easy way to socialize with their neighbors.
But the national attitude towards Halloween changed with the advent of World War II. Community leaders worked hard to convince people not to observe Halloween while others tried to outright ban it. The reasons for this were tied up in patriotism and the war effort. Wartime rationing gravely limited the average American’s access to sugar, butter, fabric, and other niceties, greatly diminishing the availability of costumes and candies. National propaganda from this era encouraged people not to waste rationed goods. Many leaders also claimed Halloween was disrespectful to American troops, as celebrating a superstitious and somewhat morbid holiday was distasteful while young men were at war. There were renewed concerns surrounding vandalism as well. The destruction of public and private property greatly exacerbated the scarcity of building supplies and construction materials.
But people still celebrated Halloween. They just did it privately and with a few modifications.
Instead of candy, parents gave out apples, raisins, and doughnuts to trick-or-treaters. Other parts of the country were hit so hard by rationing that children could not trick-or-treat at all. To combat this, parents would host neighborhood block parties with activities like bobbing for apples, pumpkin carving, and costume contests. As for costumes, Americans worked around clothing shortages and made costumes out of whatever materials were available. Country clubs and service organizations held costume balls and masquerades for adults and children alike.
Once the war was over and the Baby Boomers hit trick-or-treating age, the Halloween industry revved up. Candy companies pushed Halloween parties and trick-or-treating, introducing new candies and paying for sponsored television cartoons every year. Domestic magazines once again encouraged families to observe Halloween. Post-war tranquility and a growing economy allowed families to put more time, effort, and money into celebrating the holiday.
It wasn’t long before Halloween had cemented its place in American pop-culture, lovingly depicted in iconic films like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1966) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
And because Halloween had come to symbolize childlike innocence and the bonds of family, it’s not surprising that someone eventually found a way to subvert its cultural significance. John Carpenter’s groundbreaking horror classic Halloween (1978) is a perfect example (if not the example) of a film that forever altered the meaning of Halloween. It hearkened back to Halloween as a dangerous night, when malicious forces wreaked havoc on unsuspecting people. Halloween may not have been a success upon release, but it quickly became a cult classic and developed a devoted following, inspiring the slasher subgenre as we know it today. The slasher genre was soon bursting with countless bloody offerings almost always focusing a masked psycho who preyed on attractive, trouble-making teens. Teenagers loved those films, and with the arrival of the VCR and VHS tapes, teenagers could create their own Halloween traditions in a way that felt more grown-up than trick-or-treating.
I think it’s amazing how Halloween has managed always to balance its dark and light elements. I also think it’s wonderful how Halloween provides something for everyone. It has been a release for the fears of its participants, helping them to acknowledge life’s hardships while reveling in the comforts of those around us. The traditions revolve around community and are steeped in powerful lore, religious reverence, and cultural identity.
Throughout all the various iterations of Halloween, one common thread emerges. Halloween is a time for individuals to put aside their difference and fears to come together as a whole. By facing mortality and natural forces beyond our control, we prove we are stronger than whatever seeks to divide us.