In the United States, Halloween is one of the most widely-celebrated holidays. Young people, and even some adults, go disguised into the night in search of treats to eat or tricks to play on the unassuming. These traditions play out annually, drawing on a rich and often quite odd assortment of traditions from all across the Western world.
Patrick Thomas discusses Halloween tradition in The Origins of Halloween. In ancient Ireland, the Celtic people celebrated a festival called Samhain (pronounced SAH-WIN) in recognition of the harvest and onset of winter. This celebration took place around the first of November and was seen as a time when the spiritual world was close enough to affect the physical world.
Participants sought to earn or retain the favor of spirits and fairies, known as the Aos Si. More modern revelers would don disguises to imitate or hide themselves from the Aos Si, going from house to house reciting poetry or song in exchange for food.
Samhain and other pagan festivals mingled with Christian traditions over time to create the myriad Halloween traditions seen across the world today.
All Saints Day was created by the Church in 609, originally celebrated on the 13th of May. In 835, Pope Gregory IV changed the day of celebration to the first of November (the same date as Samhain). There have been many proposed reasons for this change. Some cite Celtic influence on the Church. Others propose that the Church was seeking to supplant pagan influence on Christendom.
Using Common Worship: Times and Seasons – All Saints to Candlemas asserts that over time, the celebration of All Saints Day incorporated traditions from Samhain and other indigenous pagan festivals. Participants all over Europe would disguise themselves in fear of an earthbound spirit’s final vengeance before he or she passed into eternity. Mischief was all but guaranteed, and participants would carry turnips carved into often grotesque faces representing goblins, spirits or even saints.
All Saints Day was observed somberly, primarily used to pray for souls still in purgatory. Bells would ring and black-shrouded mourners would pray for these souls trapped in limbo.
Participants would bake cakes stuffed with sweet spices. They would then hand them out to “soulers,” poor or young people going door to door and eating the cakes in hopes that each cake may represent a deceased relative making his or her way out of purgatory. This practice of “souling” has been cited as another early version of trick-or-treating.
The observance of All Saints Day came under major scrutiny as the Protestant Reformation began to gain traction.
Reformers denounced the doctrine of purgatory, and in turn, criticized All Saints Day for its purgatorial focus. Some renounced the practice altogether, while others came to redefine the spirits of the dead as evil spirits given the nonexistence of purgatory. This changed the atmosphere of the occasion considerably.
Over time, this change reduced the popularity of Halloween practices in Britain considerably, with many practices being relegated to the ever-popular Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th.
Across the Atlantic, however, tradition was being both preserved and uniquely molded into an observance fit for a melting-pot nation such as the United States.
According to Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Southern Catholic immigrants vied with Northern Puritans to maintain the tradition of All Saints Day. With the massive influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th century, preservation of Halloween tradition influenced by All Saints Day and Samhain was assured in the United States. While originally practiced exclusively within these immigrant societies, Halloween diffused into mainstream American tradition by the beginning of the 20th century, transcending ethnic, national and social strata.
Despite coming under heavy fire for its pagan influences in the past few decades, Halloween remains a strong tradition in the United States.
Arguably, the U.S. has one of the most pervasive Halloween traditions in the world. Folks from coast to coast forge into the darkness by the millions, enjoying mischief and sweets while perhaps nursing stomachaches for the weeks to come.