A Brief History of Halloween

Halloween is an all-American holiday celebrated yearly on October 31st. Kids look forward to dressing up and receiving free candy and many adults use it as an excuse to party and bake festive treats. Halloween traditions date back from a number of practices but there are a few key traditional celebrations that formed the Halloween we celebrate today.

In ancient times, Celts used September 1st to mark their new year; it was the end of summer and harvest, meaning it was the start of the long cold winter. These harsh winters and short days were often associated with death because it wasn’t uncommon for many to not make it through the difficult winter. So on this day of transition from summer to winter, it was believed that the boundary between the living world and dead world were most closely aligned. The night before the new year was to begin; October 31st the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain


Depiction of ancient druids

During the days surrounding Samhain, spirits were blamed for a lot of the people’s hardships, such as damaging crops or stealing/misplacing precious goods. Celts would put their trust into Druids and Celtic priests to be close to these spirits and make predictions about the future. Druids would build sacred bonfires and people would gather in hopes of having their futures determined. These bonfires were huge celebrations that while donning costumes, Celts would burn crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities.

The Roman Empire conquered Celtic territory around 43 A.D. and throughout their hundreds of years of ruling the two cultures would intermingle to create a tradition very similar to Samhain. Roman celebration of Feralia and Pomona would translate to a combined celebration of the dead, harvest, and other-worldly beings in late October.

In 1000 A.D. the Christian church proclaimed November 2nd as ‘All Souls’ Day’ as a day to honor the deceased. This was an attempt to replace the Celtic festival with a more puritanical practice.

All Souls Day generally got accepted because many of its festivities were similar enough to Samhain. This included bonfires, parades, and dressing up; although costumes such as saints and angels were more highly encouraged. Over the years the celebration would start to be referred to as All-Hallowmas or All-Hallows with the night before being All-Hallows eve. Which as we know, eventually got shortened to Halloween.


Modern day Christians celebrating All Souls’ Day

With Christian endorsement of the holiday it slowly trickled over to different parts of England and Europe but struggled at first to make its way to colonial New England. Early settlers had radical Protestant beliefs and didn’t traditionally believe it was a celebration that represented their nation. As time went on, Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.

Know as the melting pot, many cultures began to come together to create the early American version of Halloween. American Indians and European immigrants celebrated in various ways and it became popular to have fall community events. Including productions of plays, harvest festivals, storytelling, and playing games that told of the future. Annual fall festivities had become common by the middle of the nineteenth century but it was uncommon for these celebrations to be thought of as Halloween.

By the second half of the nineteenth century millions of Irish were coming to America to flee the Potato Famine. Their presence in America is widely attributed to causing Halloween to becoming a nationally celebrated holiday.


Girl in a Halloween costume in 1928

In the 1920’s and 30’s Halloween was still often considered to be a community-centered holiday. Regardless of efforts to keep up the festivities, vandalism and trickery began to make the celebrations not feel welcoming to all members of the community. In an effect to change this many town leaders started to cater the events more towards children and with this shift many events began to occur mainly in schools or at ones home.

Around the 1950’s trick or treating was revived as a way of attempting to create an event that the entire community could still share. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

This is the final post of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween

Divination Games

Traditionally Halloween was a time celebrated because of harvest and was said to be the day of the year where our world and the ghostly world were most closely aligned. Because of this, many divination rituals or ways of foretelling one’s future, especially regarding death, marriage and children became popular. During the Middle Ages, these rituals were done by a rare few in rural communities as they were considered to be “deadly serious” practices. In recent centuries, these divination games have been a common feature of the household festivities in Ireland and Britain.

The games often involved apples and nuts; in Celtic mythology, apples were strongly associated with the Otherworld and immortality, while certain nuts were associated with divine wisdom. Some also suggest that the games derive from Roman practices in celebration of Pomona. The following activities were a common feature of Halloween in Ireland and Britain during the 17th–20th centuries. Some have become more widespread and continue to be popular today.


BarmbrackThe bairin breac or barmbrack is a sweetened Irish bread filled with various dried fruits.  Objects were baked into the bread and were said to tell of the future. The man or woman who found a ring in their piece of bread was assured good luck in the coming year.  As the tradition evolved, other tokens were added; one might find a penny, a button, a thimble, a piece of wood, or a piece of cloth. Not only might you break a tooth if you get carried away enjoying the barmbrack, but not all of those symbols mean good luck.  While a penny means good fortune and a button hints at a carefree life, the thimble means spinsterhood, the wood foretells spousal abuse, and the cloth represents loss of fortune.

Apple Paring

Halloween-card-mirror-2Tradition states that if a young, unmarried woman wants to see what her fate holds she should stand before a mirror lit by candlelight and slowly slice and apple.  If she is destined to marry, the face of her future husband will appear in the mirror to claim the last bite; but a skull will appear if she is destined to die alone.

Another version of this tradition involves peeling the apple in one continuous piece.  Take the peel and toss it over your shoulder and the peel will form the letter of the first name of the person you’re destined to marry.

Apple Spinning

This game is played with everyone at once.  Each person ties a string to the stem of an apple, and begins to spin them over a fire.  The first peron’s apple to fall into the fire represents the person of the group who will be the first to be married.

Bobbing for Apples

800px-Christy's_HalloweenA much more popularized game, bobbing for apples is played by filling a tub or a large basin with water and putting apples in the water. Because apples are less dense than water, they will float at the surface. Players then try to catch one with their teeth without the use of their hands. The first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to be allowed to marry. Girls who won and would place the apple they bobbed under their pillows were said to dream of their future lover.

Luggie Bowls/Saucer Luck

Luggie bowls are little handled bowls made of wood, ceramic, or metal. Another version of this game can use saucers. Take the three small bowls; fill one with clean water, one with dirty water, and keep one empty. Taking turns, the blindfolded party guests dip their fingers in one bowl each. Those who choose the bowl of clean water can expect clean and pure spouses. Those who get the dirty water will may marry widows and widowers, or else find their partners anything but pure by the wedding day. Those who pick the empty bowls won’t be getting married at all, at least not anytime soon.

Nut Burning

Nut Burning is a game traditionally played among friends to determine who will remain friends and who will drift apart. Each person is given a nut, and they name their nuts after themselves. The nuts are then placed next to each other on the hot coals of a fire. If they burn together, they are destined to be good friends. If they pop and jump apart then the friendship is destined to fail.

Another popular variation of this game is to give each guest two nuts. The guest names one nut for themself and another for the object of their affections. If the nuts burn quietly alongside one another then love will grow, if the nuts part then the relationship is doomed.

The Chest

analogue-2842521_1920This is played at the stroke of midnight; all the girls are gathered together in a dark room. The host of the event lights a candle and each girl is given an unlit candle. One by one they light their candle from the host’s and they are told to follow her lead. As she says this a side door is opened revealing a small child dressed in a fancy costume and mask. The child approaches the girl, bows, and then leads the way out of the room to a distant part of the house where there is a closed door.

The child tells each girl that they must enter and take a numbered box from a chest of drawers in the room but not open it. She must continue in silence and close the door behind her on the way in and out. After she has retrieved the box and if she has luck, on the way back to the door she will see the shadow of her future husband walking beside her.

Once each girl has gone and they’re back to the party they may open their boxes, inside are small presents or party favors.

Throughout the evening prior to the girls participating in the chest game, the hosts would plant ideas as to what dark, ominous, or even dangerous things are inside the room so as to scare the young girls and test their bravery when they entered.

Sitting on a Church Porch

Rønne_KirkeIn old Ireland, a tradition found people sitting on the porch of their local churches.  It was said that if one sat on the porch and gazed into the night, apparitions of the people who were destined to die in the coming year would appear.

These are just a few examples of the many and varied forms of Halloween divination. Maybe try a few on Halloween this year and see what your future holds.

This post is apart of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween


Trick or Treat: A not so brief history

The tradition of trick or treating on Halloween night is long standing.  In fact, it is so common place that most years pass without a second thought to where this odd ritual came from.  For one night, we encourage our children to dress up in costume, wander around a dark neighborhood, and ask strangers for candy.  Seems odd if you attempt to apply logic.

It turns out the concept of trick or treating has a somewhat long and complicated history.  Modern day trick or treating is actually a combination of traditions from Celtic and Christian traditions.  Toss in a British guy named Guy Fawkes, the Great Depression, candy companies raking in dough and, BAM! Let’s all go trick or treating.

The beginnings:

Celtic people (in power from 750 BC to 12 BC) celebrated
the new year on November 1.  It was thought that on this day, the world of the dead would overlap the world of the living, allowing spirits to once again roam the earth.  Not all of these spirits were good spirits, so people used to dress up like evil spirits in hopes that any real evil spirits would pass right by them, thinking they were real.  This tradition was called the festival of Samhain.


A newer version:

By the time the 9th century rolled around, Christians had taken over most of the celtic lands.  They adopted their own version of the festival of Samhain.  They called it all souls day and moved the celebration to November 2.  On this day, Children and some poor people would go visit the houses of their wealthier neighbors, asking for pastries called soul cakes.  In exchange for the pastries, these poor people would offer up prayers or songs for the souls of the homeowners dead relatives.  This was called “souling.”  In order to stay somewhat aligned with the celtic tradition, people dressed up as either angels, saints or demons.  This was called “guising.”


Guy Fawkes:

Another step in the evolution of trick or treating comes from another British tradition, Guy Fawkes Day.  Guy Fawkes was accused and executed for his role in the gunpowder plot of 1605.  Fawkes (A Catholic), along with others planned to burn down the British Parliament building in order to remove King James I (A Protestant) from office.  The plan was foiled, and on November 5, 1606 Fawkes was executed.  Every year after, the people of Britain celebrated “Bonfire Night” by starting community bonfires and walking around the neighborhood asking for pennies using the phrase “May I have a penny for the Guy?”Guy_Fawkes_by_Cruikshank

The United States and the Great Depression:

The large number of people fleeing Ireland and Scotland due to the potato famine in 1840 helped popularize trick or treating here in America.  They brought with them the tradition of souling and guising.  By the 1920’s, the tradition was wrought with destruction, as young people began using that night as an excuse to get rowdy and cause mayhem.  Some cities saw upwards of $100,000 in damages on that night.  The phrase “Trick or Treat” was born during this time, as young people would perform pranks in exchange for candy.

This problem was worsened during the depression and communities began demanding change.  This is where the more community lead trick or treating events came from.  Neighborhoods, tired of vandalism, banded together to provide a fun evening of candy gathering for their kids while keeping an eye for anyone trying to cause mischief.


World War II:

When World War II began, so did sugar rationing.  This put a temporary end to trick or treating.  Once the ban was over, trick or treating was revived with new fervor.  Soon millions of kids all over the country were participating in the holiday, much to the joy of Candy Companies everywhere.

Today the tradition of Halloween is going strong, so strong in fact that it has become a 6 billion dollar industry.  Trick or treating continues to be a Halloween activity beloved by children nationwide, and who can blame them….Happy Halloween!

Sources: history.com, todayifoundout.com

The History of Halloween and Its Postcards

All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, Halloween – no matter what version of the holiday you celebrate, the end of the harvest season and the coming of a darker, colder season is heralded at the end of October.

You can see the progression of the holiday through vintage Halloween postcards, a fascinating look at what the holiday was like back then.

Halloween started with the Celtic festival Samhain, where villagers built a bonfire and donned masks to confuse any spirits at the end of the harvest season.

This turned into All Souls’ Day in the 12th century, a day to pray for the dead.

In the Victorian Era the holiday turned into a fun, less creepy holiday focused more on romance.

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Postcards from this time period reflect these themes; many Victorian Halloween postcards show couples embracing, surrounded by pumpkins on a moonlit night. A legend prevalent at the time said that a young woman could find the name of her true love on Halloween night. This included such rituals as eating an apple while looking in a mirror by candlelight, or peeling an apple in one continuous peel and seeing what letter (the alleged first letter of a lover’s name) the peels formed. Another, more questionable ritual suggests going down a staircase at midnight while holding a mirror that would show her future husband. (We don’t recommend this unless your future husband is standing at the bottom waiting to catch you when you inevitably trip and fall down said staircase.)

Some vintage Halloween postcards come across as rather odd. This one, for instance, shows uprooted kale:



This ritual meant wearing a blindfold and pulling up kale. The shape of the kale stalk suggested the look of a future spouse, and the taste suggested their temperament.

So if you come across vintage postcards with stalks of kale, you’ll be at least slightly less confused than before.

What are the strangest Halloween postcards you’ve seen?

Check out this link for more strange vintage Halloween postcards.