A Brief and Spooktacular History of Halloween

Children's Halloween

Halloween is most definitely around the corner. There’s a chill in the air.  The leaves have begun their descent to prepare the trees for the long winter ahead.  Nights are growing longer, and sunshine is a precious commodity. Throughout the country, lights are being strung in bright orange and deep purple. Front yards are becoming the homes for tombstones, ghosts, and zombies.  Children are clamoring for the latest costume so that they can go trick or treating from house to house, gathering candy and the inevitable stomach ache that’s to follow.  But…why?  Where did these traditions come from? Why do we dress up as ghosts and goblins on October 31st? And why do we do it year after year, gathering together to ward off the darkness with glowing jack o’ lanterns and magnificent bonfires?

Where Did Halloween Come From?

There are several theories as to where Halloween got its start.  Most commonly held is the belief that the pagan celebration of Samhain was the precursor to our modern celebration.  The ancient Gaelic cultures believed that the point halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice was one of the times when the world of the supernatural merged with the real world, and various rituals were practiced to appease the spirits, ensuring that livestock would live through the winter and the larders would be full until spring. It guaranteed survival for a people who relied on nature for their day to day existence. Our modern interpretations, from costumes to jack-o’-lanterns have their roots in this festival.  Dressing in animal skins was a way to both honor and defend oneself from the spirit world, wearing a disguise to avoid being taken away from the human world.  Bonfires drove away the darkness and brought communities together, where they would entreat the sun to come back as soon as possible and shorten the dark half of the year.

Our ghost stories stem from this ancient period, too, as cultures throughout the world believed that the dead would walk on the darkest nights of the year. While it was believed that ancestors who walked among the living could be disruptive, there was an idea of welcoming the dead back into the world, and place settings would be put out for them, offerings of their favorite meals and treats to honor their presence.  Fires again would guide the deceased loved ones to their ancestral homes, warming the hearth and anticipating their return.  As society moved to one that divided life and death into two very distinct states of being, the idea of honoring the dead often moved to fearing their return, believing that they were reminders of mortality and harbingers of doom.  Tales developed to warn people away from engaging with the spirit world, which became both cautionary and entertaining.  Instead of the dead gathering in homes, the living would sit around the fire in an attempt to scare one another with tales of ghosts and spirits who caused mayhem and destruction.

Halloween In America

But how did the modern Halloween in America come about?  Tracing its origins to the 1840’s emigration of millions of Irish to America, the ideas and rituals that we now associate with our modern Halloween started taking root in American soil.  The ancient celebration of Samhain had by this point been transformed to All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween for short, when the souls of the dead were remembered throughout the month of November in various Christian denominations, but the traditions that relate back to pagan times persisted, and likewise evolved.  Bonfires became jack-o’-lanterns, and disguises to ward off spirits became costumes to thrill and scare, or pretend and playact, casting off the traditional roles for an evening and becoming something other: a queen, a faerie, a ghost, an angel, or a devil.  The holiday itself provided protection from ridicule and retribution for the choice of outfit and interpretation, and does to this day.

History, Children, and the Joy of Learning

So why all of this history? What difference does it make when it comes to children and their Halloween costumes and parties and desire for candy?

  • Halloween fosters creative expression, a chance for people to be their favorite hero or villain for one night, to pretend and play dress up.
  • Dressing as something frightening, allows children to address and overcome their fears, to learn to not be scared of things that go bump in the night.
  • It lets children to mimic their heroes and use their imaginations to enter a world of make believe that is shared with other kids and adults alike.
  • Creativity and imagination are rewarded! From candy and sweets from trick or treating, to costume contests and parties where children can show others what they’ve done to stand out from the crowd.

It’s important to remember that for children Halloween is about more than the candy, even though on the surface that may seem to be the only goal.  Taking a few minutes to learn where Halloween came from, its rituals and traditions that persist to this day, can help to foster a love of learning, a tie to history that will continue to drive a thirst for knowledge.  Anything can be a teaching moment, and linking that with an enjoyable activity or day like Halloween can show how interesting where we came from and who we are can be.

National Party Stationery can help you with these teaching moments with invitations for various holiday parties, including Halloween, to bring children together to celebrate life’s events.  Come visit our wide variety of invitations, thank yous, and stationery, and have your child embrace their imagination and creativity with their friends throughout the year!



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