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A Look at the History Behind Halloween

Sep 16th 2021

A Look at the History Behind Halloween

It’s one of America’s most popular holidays, and also its most controversial.  It’s beloved by children yet is associated with scary things.  It’s a night of fun, but it has a history of being an evening of fear.  If all this sounds confusing and contradictory to you, then you’re far from alone.  All Hallows Eve is the “black sheep” of the holidays, but also the most popular of them all, with the exception of Christmas itself.  So let’s take a look at the history behind Halloween and see if we can find out more about this unusual and fascinating celebration.

How It Began

Most scholars believe that Halloween has its roots in an annual ritual observed by the ancient inhabitants of Ireland and Scotland.  Known as Samhain, it literally means “summer’s end.”  Held every year at the end of October, it was originally a solemn occasion, similar to Ash Wednesday in that it involved self-examination.  It was also a time that spirits were believed to be especially active.  To ward off evil influences, pre-Christian Celts would build roaring bonfires and stay beside them all evening.  Some combined this practice with a community feast and social.

After Great Britain became Christian, the annual event was still practiced but reinterpreted in light of church teaching.  This worked out well, as November 1st is All Saints Day for Roman Catholics, an occasion to remember family and friends who have passed on.  So Samhain become “All Saints Eve” or, in the language of medieval Europe, “All Hallows Eve.”  

It was considered a time when restless souls wandered the earth before going on to Purgatory, as well as a night when the Devil was especially active.  To protect themselves from evil influences, medieval people built fires and fashioned masks, both to hide their identities and to frighten the spooks that would be roaming the earth.

Where Trick or Treating Came From

The history of trick or treating is a fascinating tale by itself.  In the Middle Ages, it was common for pious Catholics to bake bread or cakes in memory of the deceased.  These were known as “soul cakes,” and poor persons would go door to door begging for them, offering to say prayers for the dead in return.

Fast-forward several centuries, and by the time of the founding of the United States, All Hallows Eve was an obscure occasion practiced mainly in Ireland and Scotland.  It was virtually unheard of in the US until the mid-19th century, when Irish and Scottish immigrants began arriving in large numbers.  They brought their own customs with them, including an odd holiday now called Halloween, one that few Americans had heard of.

Trick or Treating Takes Its Modern Form

The 1930s were brutally hard on most Americans.  The Great Depression affected everyone, including children.  This often manifested itself in acts of vandalism, especially on the last night of October, when underprivileged youth would run rampant causing all sorts of mischief.

This problem was especially bad in Des Moines, Iowa, where local police spent October 31st rounding up dozens of kids and teenagers who smashed windows, set fires, and caused other trouble.  This caught the attention of Kathryn Krieg, director of the Des Moines Playground Commission throughout the 1930s, and near the end of that decade, she hatched an ingenious plan.  She declared a yearly event originally called Beggar’s Night, during which the city’s youth would be allowed to go through neighborhoods asking for candy and other treats.  They were to signal their intentions by saying the phrase “trick or treat” to those who opened their doors.

The idea was a huge success, cutting the crime rate for the evening by more than 50%.  It became an annual affair, with additional rules being added as time went on.  For example, adults who wished to be visited by trick or treaters were to leave their porch lights on.  Those who left them off were not to be disturbed.  

Word of the successful approach to curbing juvenile crime spread across the nation, and by the mid-1960s Beggar’s Night, now rechristened as the modern version of Halloween, had spread coast to coast.  Its permanent place among American holidays was cemented forever in 1966.  That was the year CBS broadcasted It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, an animated special written and drawn by Charles Schulz and featuring the cast of his Peanuts comic strip.  It was so popular among viewers that Schulz later received thousands of packages of candy sent by people from all over the country, who felt bad that Charlie Brown was given rocks instead of treats.

Today, Halloween is more popular than ever, with Americans spending about $6 billion a year on candy, costumes, and other merchandise related to it.  Trick or treating occurs in virtually every community, and local parents and law enforcement take great strides to ensure that harm doesn’t come to children who participate.  While it has a long and somewhat dark history, All Hallows Eve has become a night of safe fun for millions of people in the US and around the world.

Some Fun Halloween Facts

  • In Great Britain, trick or treating is very popular; however, there it’s referred to as “guising”.
  • While most Jack O’ Lanterns are made from pumpkins, originally they were carved from turnips.  
  • New York City is the site of the world’s largest Halloween parade, with over 50,000 people participating every year, while around two million people watch.
  • The largest pumpkin ever measured was grown by a man named Norm Craven in 1993.  It weighed 836 pounds.
  • In a 2010 survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, 72% of respondents said they would be handing out candy on Halloween, 46% said they would carve a pumpkin, 40% intended to wear a costume, and 11.5% planned to dress up their pets.
  • Boston holds the record for the most Jack O’ Lanterns lit at the same time: 30,128.
  • There is a medical condition in which sufferers exhibit a profound fear of Halloween.  It’s known as samhainophobia.  It’s believed to affect thousands of Americans, most of them adults.

Independence Bunting Can Help You Make This the Best Halloween Ever

We offer Halloween bunting, Halloween bows, and Halloween pleated flags to enhance your celebration.  Black and orange are used in each product.  Our bunting comes in your choice of either three or five alternating stripes.  We sell it in both 18” and 36” widths.  Our bows are six-loop designs, with tails in orange, black, or orange/black stripes.  The pleated fans come in four sizes, with your pick of either a three- or five-stripe layout.  Any of these items would make your event all the more special and memorable.  Also, like all our products, they’re made of top-quality materials by devoted craftspeople, right here in the USA.

We also have decorative products for other holidays, as well as a huge selection of American flags.  We can even custom-make banners and other products to mark a particular cause or special occasion.  Everything we sell is covered by our famous money-back guarantee.  So no matter what your display or decoration needs are, trust Independence Bunting to do the job right every time.  We look forward to doing business with you.