Hallowe’en, a shortened version of “All Hallows’ Evening,” is a holiday blended from Christian, Celtic, and pagan harvest festivals, which marked the transition from fall to winter. Halloween takes place on October 31st, the night before All Saints Day, and is traditionally centered around remembering the dead and celebrating the year’s bounty.
Like the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, Halloween was seen as a time when the worlds of the living and dead would overlap. In the Celtic tradition it was believed that souls emerged on this night as they traveled to the afterlife, so revelers donned costumes to avoid recognition by the dead. Christian celebrants often warded off the devil with huge bonfires, whose light attracted insects and bats to join the festival.
In the United States, the great flood of Irish and English immigrants during the 1800s helped popularize the holiday. American Halloween traditions followed many practiced in the U.K., such as trick-or-treating or “guising,” going from house to house in costume or disguise and singing in return for food. (It was understood that whomever answered the door could prevent a trick from being played on them by giving their visitors some kind of treat.) Bobbing for apples, another American staple, was originally one of many such rituals involving nuts, egg yolks, or mirrors, used to divine future mates or predict the fertility of young women.
The tradition of carving pumpkins known as “Jack-O-Lanterns” is traced to an Irish folk tale, in which “Stingy Jack” makes an unfortunate deal with the devil; the story ends with Jack roaming the earth, using a turnip lit from the inside by a devilish ember to guide his way. In Ireland, the term Jack-O-Lantern became associated with the “will-o’-the-wisp,” or any eerily flickering lights seen from a great distance.
During the Victorian era, most Americans viewed Halloween as a quaint country holiday, and celebrations began shifting towards secular parades and parties, rather than focusing on the deceased. Communities began erasing the holiday’s more superstitious elements, and it was increasingly commodified with kitschy Halloween postcards and themed candy packaging.
By the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, companies were making paper skeleton die-cuts to hang in windows, chalkware figurines of witches or ghosts, wood and tin noisemakers, ghoulish board games, paper-mache pumpkins to hold candy or candles, and elaborate costumes and masks.
However, the trick-or-treating tradition wasn’t widespread in the United States until the 1930s. Though sugar-rationing in the 1940s put a damper on many Halloween parties, the holiday bounced back in the 1950s with a focus on children, cemented by Walt Disney’s short film, “Trick or Treat,” in 1952.