Halloween and Its Evolution through the Centuries

Virginia Mescher

Copyright 2003 by Virginia Mescher

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!
Scottish Prayer

Halloween, besides Thanksgiving, is the holiday most associated with autumn and has been celebrated in one form or another for centuries. During most of it's history it was a religious holiday but by the time of the Civil War, it was starting to evolve into a party holiday, but one that was not widely celebrated throughout the country. It was mostly observed by Irish and Scottish immigrants and there was little mention in print about the celebration in the United States until the mid-1860s.


Halloween has been celebrated since the 5th BC century and was originally a holiday instituted by the Irish Celts called Samhain (SOW-en). October 31 was considered the end of the summer and the Celts believed, if this day were celebrated, the following year would be prosperous. They also thought on this last day of summer all the people, who had died in the past year, would gather and find a person's or animal's body to inhabit for the next twelve months. After a year, the soul would pass to the afterlife and they believed that if the fires were extinguished and the house was dark, roving spirits would look elsewhere for a home. To frighten away the souls, family members would dress as demons, hobgoblins, and witches, and make as much noise as possible. Since the homes were supposed to be dark and, to keep the light as far away as possible, the villagers met with others and started a large bonfire outside the town. Occasionally, if a person was considered already possessed they was sacrificed in the fire.

In 43 AD, after the Romans conquered the Celts, they adopted the Celtic celebration of Halloween, although human sacrifice was abolished in 61 AD. As a substitute for the human sacrifice, they borrowed from the Egyptian custom of burning effigies. The new celebration was called Feralia that was celebrated on November 1 because that date marked the end of the Roman year. The goddess of the harvest, Pomona, was honored at this time, as well as the dead, by the offering prayers.

In the days of the early Christian church, a feast day to honor all known and unknown saints, was introduced by Pope Boniface IV. He did this to replace the earlier pagan festivals but changed the date to May 13. In 731 AD, Pope Gregory III moved the celebration to November 1 and it was called All Saint's Day. Since saints were honored or hallowed, the previous day was called All Hallow's Eve. To celebrate All Saint's Day, the young men of the village would dress up as saints and went from door to door begging for food for the poor. In 998 AD, St. Odilo, an abbot from Cluny, France instituted the holy day of All Souls on November 2, which was a day of prayer for the all souls in Purgatory and the practice of going door to door begging for the poor, was called "a'souling."

The French, in the 14th and 15th centuries, started dressing up in commemoration of All Soul's Day. During the Black Death, murals drawn on cemetery walls, depicted the "Dance of Death" or the "Dance Macabre," which pictured the devil leading a daisy chain of people into a tomb. This dance was sometimes presented as a living tableau on All Soul's Day.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther began his Protestant Reformation movement in Germany and due to the German Reformation, and that of John Calvin in Switzerland, and John Knox in Scotland, All Saint's and all Souls day were abandoned by Protestants. Even though those days were not celebrated in Protestant countries some people, especially those in Celtic countries, still retained the old practices of Halloween.

Other celebrations began to take the place of Halloween. In England, on November 5th Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated. In the early 17th century, with the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in England, some fanatical Catholic leaders plotted to blow up the Protestant Parliament and King James in 1605. They were to be assisted by Guy Fawkes, who guarded the gunpowder. The plan was discovered at the last minute and Fawkes was arrested and hanged. In 1606, Parliament declared November 5 a day of national celebration but it was also an anti-Catholic celebration. Revelers would mask themselves and visit Catholic households and demand cakes and beer or the men would dress in costume and beg lumps of coal in order to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, or in some cases, effigies of the Pope.


In the United States, both All Saint's Day, and Guy Fawkes Day, were brought by immigrants and customs from various countries intermingled and became what we know today at Halloween. Guy Fawkes Day (in the United States it became Powder Plot Day or Pope's Day) was brought to America by the Puritans but was abolished in 1833 and All Saint's Day was celebrated by Anglicans and Catholic colonists. Guy Fawkes Day eventually combined with the All Saint's and Hallow Eve's customs of the Anglicans and Catholics and thus the American holiday was born. Puritans, even though they didn't celebrate All Saint's Day, were great believers in the occult and superstitions, played fortune-telling games, practiced divinations, and told ghost stories, thus some Halloween customs evolved from those superstitions.

After the American Revolution, autumnal feasts were celebrated in rural areas and were sometimes called "play parties." Work as well as play was an important part of these community gatherings. Corn husking, apple peeling, sugaring time and other rural work parties were group oriented and after the work was done, music, dancing, fortune-telling games, divination, and good food were all a part of the party. With the large numbers of Irish and Scottish immigrants bringing their customs with them, the celebration of Halloween combined with the existing party activities, and variations on the original purpose of the holiday became more widespread in the United States.


A great many superstitions and divinations were recorded in a poem written, in 1785, by Robert Burns (1759-1796), titled "Hallowe'n." and were still popular among the young people in the 19th century. Following are examples and explanation of the spells and divinations mentioned in Burns' poem, as well as others that appeared in diaries, magazine articles, and newspapers. Nut burning was a way to see if one's lover was faithful. Individual nuts, named after the man and woman were placed on the fire grate and if they burned together, the couple would be together and faithful to each other. If a nut cracked or jumped, the named lover will be unfaithful or if it blazed, great regard was felt for another person. Sowing-hemp seed was charm to see a future husband; a girl would out alone to harrow and sow the hemp seed while saying, "Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed grow. He that is to marry me, Come after me and mow." The girl looked over her left shoulder and if she saw a man carrying a scythe and mowing the hemp, he was to be her husband; if she saw no one, she would never marry; and if she saw a coffin, she would die before she was wed. Pulling kail [cabbage] was an activity in which non-engaged couples would go out hand in hand and eyes shut, then pull the first cabbage plant they came upon and the size. The shape and the amount of dirt on the root would indicate their matrimonial fortunes. The looking-glass spell required a person to go alone and take a candle to a mirror; he or she then ate an apple in front of the mirror and one's true love would be seen in the reflection as if peering over the shoulder of the subject. In the sark sleeve charm, one was supposed to dip his or her left sleeve in a flowing stream where three properties met; they would then go to bed after hanging the shirt to dry. Around midnight, an apparition, resembling the subject's future spouse, would turn the wet sleeve inside out. Pulling straw meant that a woman would pull three oat straws from a stalk of oats and if the third stalk had grains at the top of the stalk, the young woman would have lost her virginity before marriage. The charm of three luggies [dishes] foretold the future. Three dishes, one containing clean water, one dirty water, and the last empty were placed before a blindfolded person. The subject dipped his or her left hand in one of the dishes; if the clean water was chosen, the future husband or wife would come to the marriage pure; if the dirty water was chosen they would be widowed; and if the empty dish was chosen, there would be no marriage at all. One verison of the dumb-cake charm involved girls kneading a cake, made with flour, eggs, and salt, with their left thumbs and not saying a single word. The initial of the preparer would be pricked on the surface of the cake before baking and as the cake baked, the initials of the future mate would be pricked in the cake. After baking, the participants would eat the cake before going to bed while walking backwards. If they were successful, the girls would see their future husband in their dreams. The apple paring charm required that a girl take and apple and peel it. The peeling should be taken in the right hand and while turning around three times chanting a proscribed verse; then the peeling was thrown over the left shoulder and it should form the first letter of her future husband's name. If the peel broke into pieces where there is no recognizable letter, the girl will never marry. In order for the prediction to come true, she should then take the seeds of the same apple and place them in a glass with spring water and drink them. There were also charms or divinations that did not have specific names. In one, girls would pour molten lead or wax into a dish of cold water and the resultant shape would be an indication of who their husband would be; a horse would signify a dragoon or a helmet meant a policeman; a round shape with a spike meant a sailor; or a cow indicated a farmer. A similar charm was made by breaking and separating an egg, placing the egg white in a glass that is half full of water. The glass was left untouched for twenty-four hours and after this time the white would have formed itself into various forms and these forms were interpreted like tea leaves or coffee grounds. Another egg charm consisted of taking the yolk from a boiled egg and filling the cavity with salt. The egg and salt would be eaten at bedtime without drinking water. They were supposed to see an apparition of their future husband bringing them water. Not all the charms were performed at any one time but a variety would be played on Halloween night. Some of these same charms were part of other celebrations, such as Mid-summer's Eve.

Some traditional games played at Halloween time that did not involve seeking knowledge of one's future spouse, but just provided amusement for the party-goers. In ducking for apples or snap-apple; apples were either placed in a tub of water and with their hands behind their back, the participants would attempt to secure an apple in their teeth or the apple was hung from a string and the blindfolded participants tried to catch the apple in their teeth. Candle-singeing consisted of hanging, from a string, a stick parallel to the ceiling. A candle was placed on one end of the stick and an apple on the other; the stick was turned quickly and the company would try to bite into the apple while dodging the burning candle. The participants sometimes ended up with a singed face or hair or tallow grease spattered on them.


There is not a great deal of reference to Halloween, in the United States, prior to 1860 but reference to the celebration or activities do occur. The earliest mention of Halloween, in popular periodicals occurred in the April, 1836 issue of Godey's but the subject of Halloween did not reappear until October, 1864.

The Peoria Morning Mail, on November 2, 1862 reported, "All-Hallow E'en [sic] This old time anniversary which took place on Friday evening was made the excuse by some of our wild boys for throwing unsavory missiles, putrid vegetables; taking gates off of the hinges, and sundry other pranks. This was probably ‘good fun' to the boys, but for those thus attacked it was not so desirable. This is the way a ‘very quiet' night was spent as stated by a contemporary."

Kate Stone, in her journal, Brokenburn, described some Halloween practices. She wrote in November, 1864, "Some gentlemen called, and we had cards. After they left, Lucy and I tried our fortunes in divers ways as it was ‘All Hallow'e'en.' We tried all magic arts and had a merry frolic, but no future lord and master came to turn our wet garments hanging before the fire. There were no ghostly footprints in the meal sprinkled behind the door. No bearded face looked over our shoulders as we ate the apples before the glass. No knightly forms of soldiers brave disturbed our dreams after eating the white of an egg half-filled with salt."

Another early article that described Halloween and its charms was printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on October 31, 1865, in which a number of Halloween spells were recounted; also included was a Halloween parody of the "Night Before Christmas." The October 1872 issue of Godey's contained an explanation of Burns' poem, "Hallowe'en." The author stated that the holiday was an ethnic celebration of the old-style English, Irish, Scots and Welsh immigrants. "Hallowe'en - Time in its ever-onward course, has one more brought us to the month in which this festival occurs. About the day itself there is nothing in any wise peculiar or worthy of notice, but since time almost immemorial All Hallow Eve, or Halloween, has formed the subject theme of fireside chat and published story. There is, perhaps, no night in the year which the popular imagination of the Old World has stamped with a more peculiar character than the evening of the 31st of October...
There is remarkable uniformity in the fireside customs of this night throughout England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales...
In this country Halloween for a time was strictly observed, but of late years it has been forgotten by almost all, except juveniles. Amongst the old style English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh residents, the game mentioned above [see Halloween spells and charms] are practiced to some extent...
Amongst the American people but little other sport is indulged in than the drinking by the country folk, of hard cider, and the masticating of indigestible ‘crullers' of ‘doughnuts.' The gamins make use of the festival to batter down panels, dislocate bell wires, unhinge gates, destroying cabbage-patches, and raise a row generally."

As the 19th century progressed, the celebration of Halloween continued to increase and was mentioned in magazines and newspapers. In the fall, Godey's, Harper's Weekly, Harper's Bazar, St. Nicholas Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, The Delinator, and local newspapers contained Halloween stories and suggestions for party activities. In an 1881 St. Nicholas magazine, a change in Halloween was predicted; "... belief in magic is passing away and the custom of All-hallow Eve have arrived at the last stage; for they have become mere sports, repeated from year to year like holiday celebrations." A great many of the old spells and charms were converted into games for the parties and made their way into parlor game books dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Costumes for Halloween parties began to appear in the last part of the 19th century and there were many suggestions for Halloween parties and activities published in newspapers, magazines and books. Even though Halloween was celebrated and nights of revelry were observed, it was not until 1921 that Halloween was declared an official holiday. In Anoka, Minnesota the first citywide Halloween celebration was held, where it was celebrated with a pumpkin bowl, a costumed square dance and two parades. Allentown, Pennsylvania and New York City followed with their own celebrations in 1922 and 1923, respectively.


Some of our modern customs may be traced back to the early celebrations. We think of Halloween to be a time of noise and parties; masks; begging treats; and jack o' lanterns, but as one has seen it did not start out with revelry in mind. Irish Catholics remembered the souls of all the departed, not just those of the faithful, so they had the custom banging on pots and pans to let the dead know they were not forgotten and bonfires were lit to scare away the wandering souls. The wearing of masks originated with the French and the English, as well as the begging of treats but the term"Trick or Treat" did not appear in print until the 1939. In Ireland, begging treats originally came from the custom of the "a'souling," but in America it was more associated with Thanksgiving* in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Collecting for UNICEF has now become an activity that relates to the original purpose begging for the poor. The Oxford English Dictionary stated that 1663 was the first printed record of a derivation of jack-o-lantern. It came from the Irish fable of Stingy Jack. Jack tricked Satan (the type of trick differs according to the tale) and then Jack died. He could not enter Heaven because of his sins and Satan would not let him enter Hell. Wandering around in the dark, he was able to beg a coal from Satan in order to light his way. Jack put the coal inside of a carved-out turnip and thus the jack o' lantern. In Scotland, children used large turnips; in Ireland, they used turnips or potatoes; and in parts of England they used large beets, and in America, pumpkins were used. Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," written in 1819, was the first record of a spooky pumpkin, but it was not a jack-o-lantern and the story did not mention Halloween.

The roots of most of the current Halloween traditions have been taken from early traditions of the celebration. Halloween has evolved from an adult religious celebration to a children's festival to one celebrated both by children and adults and now exceeds Christmas for candy production and rivals it for money spent on entertainment during the holiday.

* Thanksgiving had been made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. For some reason, children began wearing costumes or disguises while making mischief and begging treats. This problem increased and by 1881, the streets of New York City and other large cities rang with the exploits of the "ragamuffins" and the first Macy's Thanksgiving parade, in 1924, was an attempt to control the often destructive gaiety. The Thanksgiving revelry continued until the 1930s and for some inexplicit reason, disappeared.

Selected Bibliography

____________. "All Hallowe'en." Godey's. Philadelphia: Louis Godey. October, 1864.

Adams, Meta G. "Halloween; or Chrissie's Fate." Scribners Monthy, an Illustrated Magazine for the People. New York: Scribner and Son. November, 1871.

____________"All-Hallowe'en." Godey's Lady's Book. Philadelphia: Louis Godey. October, 1878.

Archer, Fr. Scott. "The Frightful Truth About Halloween." Compilation from Peoria, IL Diocesan information.

Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History. New York: Facts on File. 1990.

____________ Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, NY. October 31, 1865.

____________ Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, NY. November 1, 1878.

Brook. N. C. "Clara Lawson; or, the Rustic Toilet" Godey's. Philadelphia: Louis Godey. April, 1836.

____________ Charleston Mercury. October 31, 1864 (courtesy of Vicki Betts)

Cunningham, Allan. The Complete Works of Robert Burns Containing His Poems, Songs, and Correspondence. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company. 1855.

____________"The Dumb Cake: A Charm of Hallowe'en." Godey's Lady's Book. Philadelphia: Louis Godey. October, 1875.

Frost, S. Annie. "Hallowe'en at Farmdale." Godey's Lady's Book. Philadelphia: Louis Godey. September, 1873.

Gypsy Queen. Zingara Fortune-Teller. np. nd.

____________ "Halloween." Godey's Lady's Book. Philadelphia: Louis Godey. October, 1872. (courtesy of Vicki Betts)

____________. Home Games and Parlor Amusements. Chicago: Shrewesbury Publishing Co. 1917.

J. G. W. "New England Superstitions." The New-England Magazine. Boston: J. T. and E. Buckingham. July, 1833.

Le Marchand, Madame. Fortune-Teller, and Dreamer's Dictionary. New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, Publishers. 1863.

_____________. New Book of 145 Parlor Games. New York: Wehman Bros. 1898.

Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem. Dictionary of Superstitions. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.

_____________. Oxford English Dictionary. Online edition.

Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 1987.

_____________ Peoria [IL] Morning Mail. November 5, 1862 (courtesy of Vicki Betts)

Pickering, David. Cassell's Dictionary of Superstitions. London: Cassell. 2002.

Radford, Edwin and Mona A. Encyclopedia of Superstitions. New York: Barnes and Noble. 1996.

Sharp, William. "Halloween: A Threefold Chronicle." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. New York: Harper and Bros. November, 1886.

_____________. "Shaun's Sorrow. "A Tale of All-Hallow Eve." Harper's Weekly. New York: Harper and Bros. December 3, 1870.

Skal, David J. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York: Bloomsbury. 2002.

Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1874.

Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone 1861-1868. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1955.