Linda Sarhan has been a freelance writer and researcher for 20+ years and has a B.A. in English and creative writing.
Halloween in America is a time for dressing up in our favorite costumes, decorating our homes with a flight of Halloween fancy, and enjoying the frightful scares that come along with this holiday. But have you ever wondered where some of these traditions come from? Some of you may think you know the origins of popular Halloween icons, but you may be surprised to learn how Halloween really got started in the United States and the history behind it all.
Does Halloween in America truly originate from pagan worship and superstition or has it always been as it is today, a commercialized holiday to make candy makers and other Halloween specialty shop millions of dollars? Perhaps this will shed some light and separate the fiction from the truth.
Halloween Industry vs. Pagan Traditions
FACT: Americans spent over $8 billion on Halloween in 2013. According to Forbes, of that $8 billion, almost $3 billion goes to candy makers, $330 million went toward costumes for our pets in 2013.
FICTION: It is said that Halloween traditions can be traced back to the Celts and Druids centuries ago. Although, they did celebrate Samhain, which is a time with the veil between this world and the spirit realm is at its thinnest. It is a common belief that ancient Celts and Druids would dress up to in costumes to hide from evil spirits and to make these spirits happy they offer edible goodies. They would also carry carved out jack-o-lanterns to scare these evil spirits away. However there is no historic evidence that they actually dressed up or went door to door begging for treats. So where did the Halloween traditions we know and love come from then?
FACT: Going door to door in costume, begging for candy is a fairly new concept in America. In fact, trick-or-treating, as it is commonly called, didn't begin until the 1920s in certain location in the USA and by the late 1940s the tradition took a foot hold all over the nation thanks to the national media. However, trick-or-treating didn't start out as you might think it did.
Halloween was actually a night that people would run a muck by playing horrible, devious tricks and pranks on people. This began in the mid-1800 and lasted until the 1930s. What started off as funny harmless pranks suddenly evolved into horrifying acts of violence and damage by the 1920s on into the 1930s. Property was damaged was on the rise and in some cases people were injured and even killed. By 1933 many cities considered banning the practice of Halloween until some homeowners had other ideas.
These homeowners decided it would be better encourage people to have Halloween parties where you invite your neighbors, especially the kids, over for a meal and treats. The idea was to offer another alternative to the vandalism and mayhem that erupted every Halloween.
Then over a 20-year span it was encouraged to ring your neighbors' doorbells for treats on the go. However, candy wasn't a focused treat. The treats normally passed out were baked goods, popcorn, fruit, nuts, toys, and even coins. Candy truly began taking over the Halloween scene in the 1950s.
FICTION: Halloween is the first holiday where people went door to door wearing costumes. This is absolutely not true.
FACT: Colonial American inherits the tradition of wassailing at Christmas time from the English. People would dress up in ragged clothing and smear charcoal over their face as they went door to door demanding food and drink as they sang. Because this tradition was originally quite rowdy, Americans gradually moved this merriment to Halloween.
FICTION: There are many tales of how the jack-o-lantern came on the Halloween front. Some say it was solely used by the Celts to ward off or scare evil creatures. Others think the light represents the spirits. And although there may be some truth in this from a cultural perspective, the jack-o-lanterns in America got a different start.
FACT: The jack-o-lantern made from pumpkins dates back 150 years ago and originates right here in the United States. The purpose was actually just for fun by putting a candle in it and attaching it to a stick to raise it to your neighbors window to give them a fright.
However, it was inspired by the Irish much earlier than 150 years ago. The Irish would make lanterns from turnips, rutabagas, and various other gourd vegetables but they never used a pumpkin. According to History.com, the pumpkin is indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. Since the migration and trade routes from the Americas, pumpkins can be found in various countries across the world. So although the carving of pumpkins, began in America, it was a tradition that evolved from Irish immigrants.
Up until the 1860s, the jack-o-lantern was actually an icon for Thanksgiving. That's right, Thanksgiving. In the New England area, jack-o-lanterns began migrating toward Halloween when young pranksters began using them to pull pranks on people. Decades later, people began using them as party decorations.
Did you know...
- Halloween is the second-largest grossing holiday in the United States, with Christmas being number one. Consumers are expected to spend over $7 billion this Halloween season, which is less than what was spent in previous years.
- Children are more likely to be hit by a car on Halloween than any other day of the year.
- Keene, New Hampshire holds the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most jack-o-lanterns lit at one time. On October 19, 2013, there was 30,581 lit for public display.
- Pumpkins originate in Mexico.
- Around 90% of all parents take candy from their children's trick or treat bags for themselves.
So as you can see, Halloween didn't start off quite as what you thought it did, eh? In fact, Halloween and the traditions that go along with it are constantly evolving. Once Halloween became a popular tradition it used to be more about the children and adults took a back burner or enjoyed the holiday through their kids.
However, over the past decade Halloween has become more adult driven. Haunted house attractions are popping up all over the country and with each year, they become more realistic and even scarier. Millions of people look forward to being scared and some even search out the scariest of events.
So in essence, Halloween is what you make of it. Some people have family traditions focused around the children, while others expand on the childhood favorite holiday to be able to enjoy on into adulthood.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 L Sarhan
Gayle Olson from Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada on October 02, 2019:
Very interesting backstory on one of my favorite celebrations. I learned quite a bit!
Robin Goodfellow from United States on February 20, 2018:
I loved this article. Halloween is my favorite holiday, second only to Valentine's Day.
Robert Sacchi on October 22, 2017:
I enjoyed reading this article. I remember reading an article explaining the trick-or-treat tradition that started in America has become popular in many other countries. In the 1930s in Brooklyn, they would have chalk fights on Halloween.
Brittney Duran from USA on September 14, 2014:
I love Halloween. Great facts.