It’s no secret that Americans take their holidays seriously. From the feasts of Thanksgiving to the fireworks of July 4th, the USA is known for embracing and even enhancing holiday traditions. No exception to that rule is the spookiest holiday of the year: Halloween!
Taking place on October 31st every year, Halloween in America is a highly-anticipated holiday for children and adults alike. Between scary movies, haunted houses, hayrides, cornmazes, bobbing for apples, pumpkin carvings, delicious candy, costume parties and trick-or-treating, Halloween is one of the most elaborate events of the calendar year – and one of the most expensive! People truly go all out to show their spooky and spirited side on Halloween. For instance, did you know that one quarter of all the candy sold annually in the USA is purchased for Halloween alone? That’s a lot of sugar!
So, going back to the beginning – what is Halloween, exactly? We’re glad you asked.
Halloween dates back to the Celts, an ancient people who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. Every November 1st, the Celts would have their ancient Celtic festival of Samhain to celebrate the beginning of their new year.
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter – a time of year often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the living world and the world of the dead became blurred. And so, on the night of October 31st, it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
Beyond just causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts believed that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Celtic priests to make predictions about the future. These prophecies were an important source of comfort and guidance during the long, dark winters – after all, the Celts were a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world.
And so, to commemorate the event, the Celtic priests built huge sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and animals a sacrificies to their deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes – made of animal heads and skins – and told each other’s fortunes. When the ceremony was over, the Celts would bring torches to the bonfire and carry a piece of the sacred flame with each of them to their homes. There, they’d light their hearth fires and hope that the deities would protect them during the dark, long winter ahead.
By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it slowly blended with and replaced the older Celtic traditions. In approximately 1000 A.D., the church made November 1st All Saints’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All Saints Day was similar in concept to the ancient Celts’ Samhain festival – both were celebrations with big bonfires, parades and costumes (most of which were saints, angels or devils).
The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, deriving from Middle English Alholowmesse; and the night before it – the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic region – began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
The history of Halloween continues into colonial times New England, where celebrations were extremely limited due to rigid Protestant belief systems. In the early days of America, it was much more common for Halloween to be celebrated in Maryland and the southern colonies. The first American celebrations included “play parties” – public events held to celebrate the harvest and share stories of the dead through song and dance.
Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making – and while autumnal celebrations were common at this point in history, it wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century when America was flooded with new immigrants that the ghoulish and popular celebrations of Halloween took off.
Inspired by Irish and English immigrants, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that is now known as “trick-or-treat.”
By the late 1800s, there was a consensus in America to make Halloween a holiday centered around community and neighborly get-togethers, rather than about ghosts, pranks and the ever present “witchcraft” of the 19th century. So at the turn of the century, Halloween parties for children and adults became the typical way of celebrating the day. These events would focus on games, foods of the season and festive costumes. Families were asked by community leaders to remove anything “grotesque” or “frightening” from their Halloween celebrations, resulting in a loss of the holiday’s superstitious and religious overtones by the early 20th century.
Fast forward to the 1920s and 1930s – Halloween in America had become a secular and community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the main events. Due to the increased numbers of young children after the 1950s baby boom, mid-century Halloween celebrations became directed mainly at the young. Trick-or-treating was a trendy and fun way for neighbors and friends to celebrate – and to keep an eye on each others’ little ones.
Today, trick-or-treating is still perhaps the most popular way of celebrating Halloween in the USA. With Americans spending an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, it is the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
Of course, there are also ways to celebrate Halloween without going door to door – costume parties, for example! Increasingly popular with adults, Halloween parties are a great way for communities of friends, colleagues and neighbors to gather together and socialize in ways that respect the classic Halloween traditions and maybe even create some new ones of their own.
So now that you understand the history of Halloween in America, what’s the best way to celebrate? Dressing up in a costume is a must – it’s an instant way of showing others that you are honoring the traditions of the holiday, and it’s a fun way to show your creativity!
Searching for Halloween costume ideas is easy; Americans dress up as everything from animals to foods, landmarks to celebrities, cartoon characters to authors; inanimate objects to puns. Anything you choose to dress up as will be appreciated for the time and energy you put into the costume – and if you’re attending a Halloween party in celebration, be sure to check whether the hosts have a theme! Themed Halloween parties are a way for guests to create a cohesive yet creative party atmosphere, with everyone donning a costume that contributes to the greater concept. For example, a Super Mario themed party would have guests dressing up as various game characters; a Harry Potter themed party would feature costumes for the different students at Hogwarts. You could go on and on!
No matter how you choose to celebrate Halloween in America, make sure you’re being safe, making friends and having fun. Oh, and eating lots and lots of candy.