The history of Halloween began with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the last day of the Celtic year. The holiday was celebrated at the end of summer and the beginning of winter, as days became shorter and nights longer. The Celts believed that the dead returned on Samhain, and they created traditions to keep themselves safe from evil spirits, including dressing up in costume to fool the dead.

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church appropriated the Celtic festival of Samhain with the express purpose of absorbing pagan celebrations into the Christian cycle of holidays. The resulting All Saints' Day was officially moved to November 1 by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. Also called All Hallows, the night before became known as All Hallows Eve, which later became Hallowe'en, and finally Halloween.

Other traditions contributed to the evolution of Halloween as an American holiday. The historian Lesley Bannatyne refers to Protestant English settlers of the eighteenth century importing the tradition of Guy Fawkes Day. Cited by numerous authors as a source for Halloween, celebrations of this holiday often took on an anti-Catholic theme, with celebrants burning effigies of the Pope as well as other major contemporary figures. The holiday began in 1605, when English Protestants foiled a plot by Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London. Celebrations also included pranks, masquerades, bonfires, and fireworks.

However, the Protestants, a large, influential group, frowned upon Halloween celebrations, effectively stopping any systematic observation of the festival in the United States until the nineteenth century. Elements of the European folk holiday remained, however. After the American Revolution, "play parties" became popular in the form of harvest celebrations for families.

Halloween evolved into a holiday for children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as less frightening entertainments replaced commemorations of the dead. A large amount of printed ephemera about and for Halloween was produced at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, specifically for children. The earliest examples of this new genre were made by the lithographer Raphael Tuck, also known for the manufacture of paper DOLLS. The first quarter of the twentieth century also heralded the rise of businesses manufacturing products specifically for Halloween. Today Halloween is a major consumer holiday second in gross revenues only to Christmas.

Trick-or-treating, which began as a Thanksgiving tradition as early as 1881, became a major Halloween ritual in the 1920s. The phrase itself was first published in 1939 and has been used ever since. The "open house" tradition of welcoming trick-or-treaters (especially small children) became increasingly widespread in the 1930s.

For children Halloween is also traditionally an occasion to explore boundaries, often breaking rules or bypassing parental authority (whether symbolic or actual). In the past as in the present, this aspect of the holiday was often negative. By the 1930s the tradition of committing acts of vandalism on Halloween was a major concern of adults. Schools and civic groups across the country organized celebrations for children and teenagers in an effort to curb vandalism, a tradition that continues. Today Halloween is still a holiday primarily for children, which still includes age-old traditions such as dressing up in costumes and frightening masks and requesting candy favors.

See also: ; Vacations.


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

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