“Trick or Treat:” Halloween’s Haunted History

Deborah Charney

By Deborah CharneyMaroon-News Staff

Americans all across the country participate in Halloween festivities each year. We carve jack o’ lanterns, pick out the perfect costumes and go trick-or-treating with family and friends on the night of October 31. Halloween has become one of the most celebrated holidays in America, but do we even know what we’re celebrating? I doubt many of this year’s trick-or-treaters will be setting out on their quests for candy thinking of the ancient origins of this tradition-based holiday. But maybe that’s just because they don’t know what those origins are. Contrary to popular belief, Halloween did not originate in America. In fact, the holiday dates back nearly two thousand years to the Celtic people of Western Europe. They celebrated the new year on November 1, when the shift from hot summer days to cold winter weather occurred. Due to the primitive state of healthcare at this time, this change in weather brought with it a rise in the death rates, and the line between the living and the dead became blurred. On the eve of their new year, October 31, the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to the land of the living. This belief held true with the Celtic people until they were conquered by the Romans and the influence of Christianity spread to the Celtic territory. At this time, November 1 was declared All Saints Day. It has been said that Pope Boniface IV’s designation of this holiday was an effort to convert the Celtic new year to a church-sanctioned holiday. All Saints Day made its way to America with the influx of European immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Irish and English immigrants brought with them the tradition of going door-to-door in local neighborhoods, begging for food and money. Just as this practice became known as trick-or-treating, the holiday itself took on the Americanized name Halloween. Another result of the Americanization of Halloween was the transition of the holiday’s focus from ghosts and graveyards to a community-building event. Trick-or-treating and other family practices replaced the emphasis on death and witchcraft. This, in turn, caused a decline in the religious undertones of the holiday, and by the 1920s, Halloween had evolved into an entirely secular celebration. Due to the rise of pranks and vandalism associated with Halloween in the 1950s, schools and communities across the country made an effort to promote Halloween as a holiday primarily focused on children. Even the Halloween rituals that have since become family-oriented traditions have roots in the ghoulish origins of Halloween. By the second half of the twentieth century, it became common to give children candy when they came to the door on Halloween night, but this practice first began as a reward for children who refrained from playing a trick on their innocent neighbors, hence the phrase “trick or treat”? Halloween is currently the second largest commercial holiday in America. Children spend the entire month of October racking their brains for creative costume ideas, and teenagers flock to stores in preparation for spooky Halloween parties held at friends’ homes and at school. Here at Colgate, who knows what crazy pranks and scary costumes will make their debuts on October 31. But one thing’s for sure; very few Americans celebrating Halloween this year will take time out from their trick-or-treating to think back to the days of the Celtic people and the very origins of Halloween.