Halloween is a holiday with deep folk roots. It can be traced back to the Day of the Dead autumn festival of Samhain celebrated by ancient Celts living in Europe. The feast is still celebrated in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, northern France and other regions where Celtic traditions are still preserved.
The Celts, using a lunar calendar, divided the year into two basic seasons. Winter, the dying season, began on Samhain (which translates to “end of summer”), which is celebrated on the day of the full moon that falls closest to November 1 after the end of the harvest.
Samhain is traditionally the first day of the Celtic New Year. The Celts believed the souls of the dead would be extremely restless that night, which marked the division line between the living and the dead, the summer and winter, and the old and new year.
During Samhain, the Celts would disguise themselves in furs and feathers in order to confuse the spirits walking the earth that night. When the Celts became Christians, Samhain was incorporated into All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day, the night that is today celebrated as Halloween. All Souls’ Day takes place on November 2, the day after All Saints’ Day.
All Hallows’ Eve was universally celebrated throughout Europe, especially by Catholic countries, and marked the day when souls departed from the material world and entered the spiritual world of the dead. In the United States, the origin of the American holiday of Halloween can be traced back to the 1840s.
The then arrival of a great many Irish immigrants, who were escaping the ruinous potato famine in Ireland, further established the holiday in the U.S. The Irish legend of Jack inspired the carving of pumpkins. Apparently, Jack was a man so evil that he was rejected by both heaven and hell when he died and was punished to roam the country with a glowing pumpkin for a head.
European cultural traditions, the arrival of different immigrant groups and the constant evolution of American culture have helped change Halloween into what it is today. It reflects many different cultural traditions, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead and England’s Guy Fawkes Day. Ghost stories were often told during these holidays and divination games, played. Other traditional games also took place, such as women bobbing for apples to find out whom they would marry.
In Victorian times, Halloween’s folk and religious roots were not as celebrated; it became considered a quaint community-centered holiday. By the early twentieth century, Halloween became a celebration centered on children with communities arranging for haunted houses and parades.
In the 1940s, trick-or-treat was incorporated into the traditions of Halloween. The custom of begging for food in costume was an old European tradition and was considered transgressive, in that behavior typically frowned upon in children would be forgiven. Children would perform mimes or sing in exchange for a treat; or otherwise play a ‘trick’ on neighbors if a treat wasn’t given.
Adults would sometimes wear costumes and participated in trick or treating. In County Cork, Ireland, a man holding a wooden horse’s head and wearing a white robe would lead the group. In Scotland, costumed beggars were dubbed skeklets. In Wales, women dressed as men and men dressed as women and would sing Halloween rhymes for a treat.
Costume wearing was a tradition that began as early as the nineteenth century, with women’s magazines offering instructions for making costumes at home. Though costumes were still mostly made at home, commercially produced costumes started appearing at the time of the industrial revolution.
As the second half of the nineteenth century wore on, technological advances made commercially produced costumes increasingly cheaper, more varied and better made. Early costume themes, which continue to even today, were witches, devils, skeletons and ghosts. Later on, popular culture held up the Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and others as inspirational figureheads for costumes.
The Dennison Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts began fabricating paper costumes in 1910. Also around that year, Collegeville, with headquarters in Pennsylvania, used the scraps of its flag making business to create early jester and clown costumes. The Ben Cooper Company of Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1927, created theatrical costumes and sets for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Cotton Club and started making Halloween costumes in 1937.
The Ben Cooper Company later merged with A. S. Fisbach, another local costume firm, and bought the license to Disney characters, such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Donald Duck, the costumes of which were sold under the name Spotlight. The Ben Cooper Company was later sold to local firm Rubies in the 1980s – one of the largest producers of Halloween costumes in the country.
Many early costume masks, of popular costumes themes of witches, animals and clowns, were made by the U.S. Mask Company of Woodhaven, New York. Made of buckram and starch, their early gauze masks were steamed over a mold. In the 1950s, vacuum-formed latex masks began to be manufactured.
Then, many latex masks of popular culture figures, such as John Kennedy, the Beatles, Elvis, Laurel and Hardy and even doll and action figures such as G.I. Joe and Barbie, were made. Other major American costume companies included E. Simons and Sons, in New Orleans, Louisiana; Bland Charnas Company of Long Island, New York; and Halco, of Pennsylvania.
Halloween is a uniquely American holiday that is celebrated by adults and children alike. Many communities celebrate it, including the gay community, which conducts costume parades in New York, San Francisco and other gay centers across the nation. A very popular holiday, Halloween allows individuals to be a different person for a night, while honoring the folk, cultural and ethnic roots of a festival that has been celebrated by diverse peoples since ancient times.