Halloween is weird y’all. I mean, I love it, don’t get me wrong, but it is weird. The costumes, carving faces into pumpkins and putting candles in them, trick or treating - walking around to stranger’s houses at night, costumed stranger’s houses asking for candy, putting the candy into a bucket shaped like a pumpkin with a face. It’s bizarre, really. What a bizarre holiday. And it’s spooky too, right? It’s scary. I feel like it’s scarier than ever - monsters and demons and evil clowns, murderers with chainsaws. My neighbor posted something on Facebook recently that said quote “I don’t celebrate Halloween for the same reason Satanists don’t celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Light has no fellowship with darkness.” end quote. And I get it because they’re literally selling animatronic demons as Halloween yard decorations but I read this and I was like “ohhh, nooo.” Everyone totally misunderstands Halloween. It might seem evil if you don’t understand its origins, but did you know Halloween is really a blend of several historical holy days, spiritual, religious, dare I say… hallowed? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Halloween is in two days! So what a perfect time to finally get to the bottom of what Halloween even is. I’m ending this month’s Spooktober series with a bang and delving into the origins of Halloween - where it comes from, why we do the things we do, and why it’s so dang weird. I’ve had a few people throw out ideas for additional spooky episodes, thank you, I love that. I might save them for next October, I don’t know, we’ll see. But if you’re waiting around for your spooky episode idea to drop and it’s not dropping… I’m probably saving it for next year’s Spooktober. I mean, if I’m even still making this podcast next year. JK I’m totally going to be making this podcast next year, don’t worry guys. But you know, while I’m on the topic of sustainability, if anyone ever wants to support the show and help ensure its survival, subscribing, reviewing, and sharing with your friends are huge. If you want to go big, there is a link at the bottom of every episode description that says “support the show.” That takes you to my buy me a coffee page where you can buy me a coffee AKA give me $5. I may or may not buy coffee with it. That is extra, friends, do not feel obligated to do that. Just throwing it out there though cause I’ve been too scared to mention it until now. Feeling bold today, I guess. Anyway, I’m not going anywhere. But, you know, support helps.
Let’s talk about Halloween. It’s kind of out of control in the United States right now. And I thought it was like this everywhere but I’m told by my brother in law who is Australian that it is especially extra in the US. There’s a house near me that has thousands of dollars worth of Halloween decorations in their yard right now - a whole fleet of 12 foot tall skeletons, one of them is walking a 6 foot spider on a leash, another is holding a regular sized skeleton upside down while a whole crowd of regular sized skeletons bows down to it. So many skeletons. Skeletons everywhere. They have witches too. Witches flying, witches brewing potions, animatronic witches that cast spells, there’s a wizard with light up eyes, there’s a skull arch, a light up skull stack, a light up pumpkin stack. It’s out of control. They have every single scary guy from Lowes. So now we drive past this house every day, loop around the block and drive back by. It’s our new fall passtime. But, I’m not kidding you, these people must have spent like ten thousand dollars on Halloween decorations. I feel like they need a donation box out there. I’d pop a twenty in it, for real. Jules has gotten way more than $20 worth of entertainment out of it, for sure. I would buy them a coffee.
According to a history.com article called Halloween 2023, quote “Americans spend an estimated $6 billion dollars a year on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.” end quote. Six billion dollars. And yet, no one even knows, really, what it is they’re celebrating. But it’s not the devil, and it’s not demons. It’s weirdly kind of the opposite. Kind of holy. The word “hallowed” actually means to be made holy, consecrated. A hallow is a saint or a holy person and to hallow something means to honor it as holy. So how did a holiday with holy in its name come to be associated with evil?
Let’s go back to the very beginning. Halloween started in ancient times, around 2,000 years ago with the Celtic people who lived mostly in what is now Ireland, the UK, and northern France. The ancient celts were pagan. And I know, I know you hear the word pagan and you’re like “okay so it is evil.” No. That’s just the propaganda they’ve fed us for centuries speaking. Please go back to episode 29 about witches for more on that. Pagan is just what it was in Europe before Christianity took over. It wasn’t evil. It was just different, polytheistic. They believed in multiple gods, worshiped multiple spirits - just like the Greeks and the Romans and the Egyptians and the Algonquians - this is pre-Christianity. That doesn’t make it evil.
The celts had many festivals, or what we might today call holy days or holidays. One of them was called Samhain and it was celebrated the night of October 31st. In the ancient celtic world, November 1st was the start of the new year. So Samhain was a mix of harvest festival and new years eve. It marked the end of summer and the start of winter. The days became shorter, the weather turned cold, the grass turned brown, the trees lost their leaves, the flowers died. This was a time of year, and it still is, associated with death. That’s just what fall is really. It’s the time of year things die. They stay dead, or dormant, or whatever throughout the winter, and then in the spring there is a rebirth, a budding of new life, and the cycle begins again. Pagan religions are typically very intune with nature. So it makes sense that they would be hyper aware of these seasonal changes and would align their cultures to them.
The celts believed that on the night of Samhain, October 31st, the night before the new year began, the boundary between the worlds, the realms, of the living and the dead thinned, became weakened, blurred to the point that spirits of the dead could pass back through to visit the world of the living. I asked Emma Louise Dyson about this in our interview for the witches episode, and I released that full interview if you missed it, mini fix number 5, I believe. Here was her take on Samhain:
“For me practicing, like Samhain is, it is the time when the veil is thinnest. So the veil between, and I just covered in goosebumps as I said that. So right now the veil is thinning between the physical world that we live in and between the spirit world. And so Samhain and around this time and different cultures have different time frames but from around the 30th of October to around the 4th 5th of November depending on which cultures, this is the time were we can connect really deeply with our ancestors and it is a time when we can speak to our ancestors and see anybody who’s passed over if they need any help with anything. So, you know, that may be something like passing a message over to another loved one. There may be some unfinished business that they had her on Earth that they weren’t able to get any closure from. So this time is all about honoring our ancestors. We look at Mexican culture, we can see like Day of the Dead. There’s so much around this time in all different cultures. I find it really fascinating but for me Samhain is all about honoring those that have passed over and, yeah having this opportunity to really be able to connect with those.
I was so stoked she mentioned Day of the Dead because I also see so much of Samhain in that. The belief that, for this brief time, you're able to connect once again with the spirits of your ancestors, the spirits of your family, your loved ones who have died and passed over. Not demons, not the devil, your loved ones. Day of the Dead is distinctly Mexican and its origins are not Irish/Celtic, for the most part. I mean, they are a little bit because of later Catholicism, we’ll get to that. But the ancient origins of Day of the Dead come from the Aztecs, also pagan like the celts, also nature based, also seeing these seasonal changes, this yearly dying back of nature, also recognizing death in their holy days. So, very interesting that Halloween and Day of the Dead originated initially from totally different cultures, religions, groups of people who had no contact with one another whatsoever and yet they are so very similar at their roots.
But let’s go back to Samhain, back to the celts, because where our Halloween was born. On Samhain, the celts believed that the spirits, the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth. They also believed that the presence of these spirits made it easier for druids, who were celtic priests, to prophesize or predict the future. So they made predictions about next year’s harvest, that sort of thing. This was often a source of comfort for people heading into the uncertainty of a long, cold, dark winter. Will the crops come back? Will we have enough to eat? Will the livestock reproduce come spring? They wanted reassurance that the challenges of winter would not last forever. That, come spring, they would flourish once again. And so predictions, fortune telling, really, was a big part of Samhain. We’ve lost that somewhat but not until very recently. I’ll come back to that.
So how did they celebrate Samhain? They extinguished their hearth fires. This was something you’d typically keep burning at all times. It’s way hard to start a fire without modern fire making tools - matches, lighters - heck it’s hard to start a fire with them, honestly. So fireplaces stayed lit at all times, even if it was just a little burning ember. Letting your fire die completely was a big huge fail. But on Samhain, they intentionally put out their fires - killed them. Then they had a huge bonfire where everyone gathered. They burned wilted crops and animals as sacrifices to their gods. Afterwards, they carried an ember home from the bonfire and relit their hearths. This was a fresh start for the new year and it was believed that the fire, reborn from an ember of the sacrificial bonfire, would protect them through the winter. They would also leave offerings of food and wine out for roaming spirits - very Day of the Dead - hard to believe they evolved independently of one another. But one important distinction, they left the food outside during Samhain so that the spirits would not enter their homes. Day of the dead, they usually set up an elaborately decorated altar in their homes full of food as an offering to their ancestors. Like, “welcome home.” The celts seem to have been a bit more wary of the dead. They were a little bit spooked by them. They’re like “yeah, just don’t want you in the house. You stay out there. Eat up, of course, drink the wine, but, you know, just do it outside. Love ya grandma, just stay out there cause, you know, you're dead and all. It’s just a little creepy.” They also wore costumes during Samhain so that, if they were to encounter a ghost, it would mistake them for another ghost and leave them alone. So, that’s where the spooky costumes come from really. They dressed up to essentially trick the dead into thinking they were also dead.
By the year 43, the Roman empire had conquered most of the celtic territory in Europe. They would rule over this area for the next 400 years before collapsing, launching the world into the dark ages. But during these 400 years that the Romans ruled over the celts, Samhain merged with a couple of traditional Roman festivals, also pagan. One was called Feralia. This was a day celebrated in late October when Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. So Celtic, Aztec, Roman… October is like universal acknowledgement of death month. The Romans also had a day around this time of year to honor Pomona who was the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. So, Feralia was already kind of Samhain. Pomona’s day brought apples into the equation. The symbol of Pomona is an apple. This may be where the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples came from. Which, is that even still a thing? Did Covid kill bobbing for apples? When's the last time you bobbed for an apple? It’s been at least 25 years for me. Yeah, I swear we bobbed for apples on my 10th birthday. I’m an October baby so I always had Halloween themed birthday parties and that definitely went down at least once… 25 years ago. It might be dead. I think I’m okay with that. Pretty gross and hard and not actually very fun at all. I’m glad I did it one time. I’m cool to not do it again.
So Samhain got a little Roman twist and then the Roman empire collapsed and around the same time, Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe. But back then, it was just Catholicism. There was no protestant yet. In May of the year 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs. Because the rise to dominance was not easy for Christians. It was rough, it was bloody, a lot of people died, and so there were a lot of martyrs. The Roman emperor Nero was notorious for persecuting Christians in ancient Rome. Side note - Nero was Caligula’s nephew. For more on Caligula, refer to episode 11 about Mad Kings. While Caligula was most likely clinically insane, Nero was just straight up mean. He arrested and tortured all of the Chrisitans in Rome in the 60s (not like the 1960’s, like the actual 60s, 64 ADish). Then he publicly executed them by crucifixion, feeding them to wild animals, and burning them alive. It wasn’t until the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 300s that Christianity became an official and accepted religion in ancient Rome. So, needless to say there were many Christian martyrs that needed to be honored thanks to sick freak Nero and what better way to do it than to dedicate an ancient Roman pagan temple to them. Nero’s rolling over in his grave. Let’s hope he doesn’t come back on Samhain.
Anyway, anyway Pope Boniface does this on May 13, 609, dedicates the pantheon to the martyrs and they start having an annual feast on that day that comes to be called All Martyrs Day. Later, Pope Gregory III expanded All Martyr’s Day to also include Saints and he moved it from May 13th to November 1st. So November 1st becomes All Saints Day in the Catholic Church.
By the 9th century, Christian influence had pretty well spread as far north as Ireland and the Celtic lands where it blended with the celtic traditions. In the year 1000, the church made November 2nd All Souls Day to honor the dead. It’s very likely they did this to replace Samhain. So the pagan Celts are still kind of doing their thing, their bonfires, their spooky costumes, their offerings of food and wine but the church is like “well, it’s All Soul’s Day, they’re doing it for All Soul’s Day so it’s cool. They aren’t worshiping pagan gods, they’re worshiping our god.” It was their way of passive aggressively conquering the pagan religion that had always existed there by just turning their rituals into Christian rituals. They kind of did this with Easter too, but I’ll save that one.
So, stay with me here. November 2nd is All Souls Day which was invented to replace Samhain. November 1st is All Saints Day, also called All-Hallows or Alhalowmesse which in Middle English means All Saints Day. The Day before All Saints Day, Alhalowmesse, which was the traditional date of Samhain, came to be called All Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Which to me sounds like the perfect blend of Hallows Eve and Samhain. Halloween. And that’s really what it is. This beautiful mix of the Catholic All Hallows Eve and pagan Celtic Samhain. And that’s really what Day of the Dead is too except Catholic and Aztec instead of Catholic and Celtic. And so really, at its roots, Halloween is a holy day times three or four or more. It’s a blend of many religions - Celtic, Roman, Catholic - and anyone who tells you it’s evil has it all wrong.
Now today, Halloween is not really a religious holiday. It has become very secular. I mean All Hallows Eve is still a thing if you’re Catholic. It’s still a holy day. But the ways in which we celebrate Halloween today in the United States at least, that six billion dollars we spend each year, that’s secular. So how did that happen? Let’s get into it.
First of all, Henry VIII plays a role in this story, somewhat. This guy… he just won’t go away. If you recall, Henry broke ties with the Catholic church in 1534 and established the church of England, which was protestant. He did this, not because he believed in the protestant reformation and wanted to join their cause, but because he wanted to divorce his wife of nearly 25 years, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. He was desperate for a male heir. Catherine had only produced one living daughter and was reaching the end of her reproductive years. Henry believed Anne would give him a son. Spoiler alert - she didn’t. But anyway, the Catholic church would not grant Henry a divorce from Catherine who was, by the way, a princess of Spain which was and is one of the most loyally Catholic countries. Her nephew was currently King of Spain and good buddies with the Pope so the divorce was not happening without drastic measures. Henry was nothing if not drastic so he formed his own church, of which he was the head and now he could do whatever he wanted including divorcing a couple of wives and executing 2 others.
But what this split did was make England a protestant country. In the beginning, at least, they were very anti-Catholic. There was this fear that Catholicism would take back over and de-legitimize Henry and his heirs and the line of succession and just the whole monarchy really. So they clung to protestantism and they shunned anything Catholic including Catholic holy days like All Hallows Eve AKA Halloween.
So when we look at Halloween in the US which was initially colonized by English immigrants fairly fresh from this Catholic split. Halloween wasn’t really a thing at first. Puritan colonists in New England were not celebrating Halloween. But eventually other groups began to immigrate including Irish and Italian which were quite Catholic. The Catholic All Hallows Eve which had already been blended with the Celtic Samhain now got a touch of Indigenous American culture in the form of harvest celebrations and festivals and the American Halloween was born.
The first Halloween celebrations in young America were called “play parties” and they were public gatherings to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would remember the dead, dance, sing, and tell each other’s fortunes. That’s a remnant of the celtic druids prophesying on Samhain that I mentioned earlier. Halloween really exploded in the US during the second half of the 19th century when the potato famine in Ireland forced many Irish immigrants to move to America. But at this point, they’re just kind of gathering, telling ghost stories, predicting the future, maybe they’d wear costumes but it didn’t look much like the Halloween of today yet.
By the turn of the century, early 1900’s, newspapers and community leaders started encouraging parents to take anything frightening out of Halloween. It’s not about spirits anymore, now it’s just about dressing up in silly costumes and having fun. And at this point, it lost much of its religious aspects and just became a secular holiday. By the 1920s and especially the 30’s, a new trend had developed - mischief making AKA vandalism by young pranksters taking advantage of a weird, no longer holy holiday to cause trouble. According to Lisa Morton, author of the book “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween” in a Smithsonian article by Chris Heller, quote “Halloween themed haunted houses first emerged during the Great Depression as American parents schemed up ways to distract young tricksters, whose holiday pranks had escalated to property damage, vandalism, and harassment of strangers.” end quote. So that’s when haunted houses, haunted hay rides, haunted woods, or whatever became popular in the US. As a way to give these angsty teens an adrenaline rush without actually destroying anyone’s property.
Between the 1920s and the 1950s, so around the same time as the haunted houses, trick or treating became a thing in the US. That was probably also a nice distraction from the vandalism. Give them something to do. Give them candy. Always a good distraction or bribe. But trick or treating wasn’t new. It was a throwback to centuries ago, likely based on the early All Soul’s Day parades in England. According to that history.com article quote “During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling,” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money.” end quote. So it was just another way that the Catholic church replaced Samhain traditions by tweaking them a tad and calling them Catholic. Also, I guess they used to give children ale instead of candy.
So trick or treating is likely based on going a-souling from way back when England was still Catholic which was based on the celts leaving offerings of food and wine for the dead during Samhain. And it was also kind of a form of bribery, like “here kid, I’ll give you candy, just don’t egg my house.” Treats to prevent tricks. It works. Take it from a teacher and mom. I mean I don’t bribe my kids with treats all the time… just sometimes. It’s fine. They’re fine.
There’s one more tradition that is extremely similar to trick-or-treating though and, while it’s more likely it came from Irish American immigrants Catholic slash celtic traditions, this one is so similar, I have to mention it. One theory argues that modern trick-or-treating came from “belsnickeling,” which is a German-American Christmas tradition. Germans, like basically invented Christmas by the way y’all but I’ll save that one. So to go belsnickeling, children would dress up in costumes and go to their neighbor’s houses to see if their neighbors could guess who they were. If no one could identify them, they were rewarded with food - some kind of treat. So this almost is trick-or-treating. It makes me wonder if they realized belsnickeling actually fit much better with Halloween, when you were already dressing up in costumes, than it did with Christmas.
So trick or treating has really only been a thing in the US since around the 50s and it really transformed Halloween into a holiday primarily for children. Adding to that was the baby boom after World War II - a major increase in babies being born and then, obviously, an increase in the number of children living in the US because of the boom. And all those children really latched onto Halloween, solidifying its permanence as a major US holiday.
But what about some of the other traditions? Carving jack’o’lanterns, for example. Jack-o-lanterns are… I think everyone knows this? I don’t know. Honestly I didn’t realize Halloween wasn’t as big a deal in other countries as it is in America. So if everyone already knows what jack-o-lanterns are, sorry. But if you don’t, it’s when you hollow out a pumpkin, take all the seeds and guts out of it, and then carve a face into it. Well, you can carve whatever you want into it really but traditionally it’s a face with like triangle eyes and nose and a toothy grin. Then, you put a candle in it and light it up like a lantern. I’m pretty sure everyone knows that, sorry, that was probably extra. But I don’t think many people know where this very weird tradition came from.
It came from Ireland, just like Halloween. But in Ireland, they didn’t carve pumpkins, they carved turnips? Apparently this came from an old legend about a guy named Stingy Jack. According to the legend, Jack trapped the devil and then, before letting him go, made him promise that he would never go to Hell. So when Jack died, he didn’t go to Hell, but he also couldn’t get into heaven. So, he was forced to wander Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a carved out turnip with a burning lump of coal in it to light his way as he wandered around. So eventually, based on this legend, people started hollowing out turnips, carving scary faces into them, and lighting them up to scare away evil spirits. Eventually, when this tradition made its way to America, the turnip was swapped out for a pumpkin which is indigenous to North America and was a major staple of Native American diets and harvested in the fall. So the Jack in Jack-o-lantern comes from Stingy Jack. Which, I’m not sure why he’s stingy, whatever.
Black and orange - Halloween colors. That’s straight from Samhain. Black represented the death of summer and orange symbolized the autumn harvest season - probably inspired by the way the leaves turned orange that time of year. Not pumpkins though, because remember those came from North America. The ancient celts didn’t have pumpkins. Pumpkins weren’t introduced to Europe until after exploration of the Americas, so 1500s. It does make me wonder if maybe they were chosen as the jack-o-lantern turnip replacement because they were orange or if that’s just a coincidence.
One Halloween tradition that has pretty much been lost is fortune telling. That was always a big part of it from as far back as the inception of Samhain 2000 years ago. What started as druids predicting next year’s harvest turned into girls trying to identify who their future husbands would be. Which, yeah that checks out. That’s pretty much what all fortune telling turns into, right? In 18th century Ireland, the cook would hide a ring in the mashed potatoes on Halloween night and whoever found it would be guaranteed to find true love. In Scotland, young girls named a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then threw them into the fire. The nut that burned to ashes instead of popping or exploding was the suitor she’d marry. One legend said that if a girl ate a sugary concoction of hazelnuts, nutmeg, and walnuts before bed on Halloween, she would dream about her future husband. Other Halloween match-making traditions included throwing apple peels over your shoulder in the hopes they’d land in the shape of your future husband’s initials and staring into a mirror in a dark, candle-lit room in hopes of seeing your future husband’s face appear behind you in the reflection. The first to find a burr on a chestnut hunt or the first to successfully bob for an apple would be the first to marry. These future husband related superstitions and rituals abounded this time of year. But not really anymore. At least, I was never aware of the fortune telling, who am I going to marry part of Halloween. And that takes me down an interesting corridor in my mind that goes way deeper than I probably need to get into right now. But I will. I think all that desperation to uncover your true love and find out who you’re going to marry and how soon you’re going to marry comes from an oppressive patriarchal society. Here I go again. But really, hear me out. Women had no rights of their own. They had no power, no voice, no independence. They were property of their fathers and then they were property of their husbands. As girls turned into young women and moved towards adulthood, the pressure was on. A woman without a husband was nobody. So, this seems like fun childish games all this romantic fortune telling but I think it really came from a place of fear and uncertainty and desperation about their futures. Not unlike the fortune telling done by the druids way back when during Samhain. They predicted bountiful harvests and warm fruitful springs at a time when people were facing the terror of a dark, cold, hungry winter. But this Halloween fortune telling tradition has fallen away as women have gained independence and power outside of whatever man is in their lives. So I think it’s a good sign of change that we aren’t so concerned about who am I going to marry and when. It’s a sign of female empowerful so I’m cool with that tradition fading away. I mean, I don’t think magic 8 balls are going anywhere any time soon but all this other mess can go.
So there you have it. Halloween - a beautiful mix of ancient pagan ritual, Catholic holy days, and Indigenous American traditions. Something that’s easy to misunderstand as evil or dark when really, it was always a celebration, an acknowledgement of the end of life, the passing of the seasons, the withering of the plants. It’s something to be revered and respected and honored and yes, maybe it is a little creepy, death is a little creepy. But it’s an important part of the circle of life just as fall is an important part of the circle of the seasons. We are born and we live and grow and learn and love and then we die. It’s just as important as every other part of the cycle. I would argue, contrary to that Facebook post I mentioned at the start of this episode, that light does in fact have fellowship with darkness and that, without death, there is no resurrection. Genesis 3:19 “For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” Happy Halloween guys.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from Library of Congress Blogs, History.com, PBS, and Smithsonian Magazine. Special thanks as well to Emma Louise Dyson for her input. You can listen to that full interview if you missed it, mini fix number 5. As always, links to these sources can be found in the show notes.