Like Christmas and National Cheesecake Day, Halloween’s scary history is rooted in a mashup of Christo-Pagan religious events from centuries ago. But, as you get ready to put on that Sexy Martin Van Buren costume, ask yourself this: how much do I really know about the only day of the year when it’s cool to dress sluttily and demand things from your neighbors?
For those of you who answered “not the most ever”, Thrillist’s crack Historical Investigations Squad present: A Brief History of Halloween.
On the etymology of Halloween:
According to the expensive, hardcover books in my dad’s basement, the actual name comes from the Scottish phrase for All Hallow’s Eve. Turns out Scots inexplicably call “eve” “even”, and then they don’t pronounce the “v”, and that quickly becomes “e'en”, and pretty soon All Hallow’e'en loses the “All” as well, and there you go. The holiday itself is really a confluence of two different religious customs, one Celtic-Pagan, and the other Christian. To wit:
On Celtic-Pagan influences; bonfires; JV Gods:
Celebrated as early as the 12th century, Samhain, which means “Summer’s end”, was a Celtic festival held around the end of October that marked the end of the harvest and the start of a “darker season”.
Darker seasons meant a) the sun literally wasn’t up as often, and b) the “Aos Si” (essentially JV gods, or spirits/fairies) were active and needed to be bribed with foodstuffs or they’d murder your cows -- so people would leave offerings. It was also a time when the souls of dead people not seen by Haley Joel Osment came back to their homes to hang out. To make them feel at home, people would light their nicer Yankee candles, say prayers, and then create huge bonfires, because dead souls are essentially just like drunk teenagers in fields.
After prayers, dinner, and fire with the dead souls, people would go out “guising” (e.g. wearing a disguise!) to fool or imitate the Aos Si (history isn’t clear on this distinction), often using the ash from those bonfires to blacken their faces, holding carved-out turnips (pumpkins are native to North America) with candles in them, and going door-to-door singing songs or reciting racy poems in exchange for food. If you didn’t give these weird people dressed up like JV Gods some of your Stouffer’s, they would threaten to do things to your home. So yes, in this version, trick-or-treating essentially started as a kind of f***ed-up blackmailing scheme.
On Christian influences; vengeful soul cakes; slutty cobblers' apprentices:
Move aside, Pagans! Christ’s followers also take credit for some Halloween action, mainly because it falls on the the night before All Hallow's Day, aka All Saints' Day, aka Hallowmas, aka Hallowtide,
aka Hallow Man aka DJ Kevin Bacon -- no... that’s about all of them. On these days, Christians pray for recently departed folk to get up to Heaven, and also pray for saints. People also baked “soul cakes”, which have nothing to do with movies produced by Babyface in 1997, and everything to do with making baked goods for “all christened souls.” Once you made your cake, poor people would come knocking door-to-door to get some, in a process called “souling”. If you didn’t have a cake, the poor people would say passive-aggressive things about you in Latin. So that’s their version of where/how trick-or-treating started.
In terms of costumes, the Christians believed that on All Hallow's Eve, throngs of angry, vengeful souls were wandering around with murder-lust in their eyes, looking to enact revenge on anyone who wronged them before they got shipped off to Heaven/Hell. In order to avoid this petty deathly vengeance, people dressed up in costumes to disguise their identities, hoping this would happen:
Soul they wronged: Argggghhh!! Are you Ben Robinson?!?! I will bring upon you a fiery, torturous death from which there is no escape!!!
Ben Robinson: Of course not. I’m just a slutty cobbler’s apprentice.
Soul they wronged: Oh, my mistake.
On American assimilation; Puritan killjoys; Daenerys Targaryen:
Those hardcover books don’t put Halloween in American culture until sometime after the potato famine and mass immigration of many Irish/Scots in the 19th century, and state that this is mostly because Puritans -- those joy-killing revolutionaries -- hated Halloween (see: Salem Witch Trials, demonology, exorcisms, their reluctance to purchase face makeup, etc), and also the Scotch-Irish. And also people who might’ve slept with Hester Prynne.
The holiday wasn’t really celebrated outside of ethnic enclaves until the 20th century. In fact, the first documented act of “guising” in the Americas isn’t until 1911, and that was in Ontario, Canada, which is only technically America according to people who like maps. BUT Halloween was #trending! By 1919, a historian woman named Ruth Edna Kelley even wrote a book about its history, and mentioned “holding Scotch parties” and studying “old traditions”, and generally being kickass.
So this year, as you, Sexy Martin Van Buren, fumble your way around a crowded Halloween party bumping up against grown men dressed as Daenerys Targaryen, raise that glass of Scotch to Ruth Edna Kelley and our Celtic/Pagan/Christian Halloween founders, and remember: if a vengeful soul comes looking, you never saw me.