How Halloween went from an Irish background to an American holiday

By Ellen Fitzpatrick / October 30, 2020

Halloween is a much loved and treasured holiday across the world, but how did this ancient celebration come to be the holiday we know and love?

Ghosts and ghouls, sweets and treats, everything we know Halloween to be has a fascinating and very Irish background to it. 

Halloween originates from the festival of Samhain, where in ancient Celtic times it marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the ‘darker half’ of the year.

Beginning on October 31st and lasting until the following day, November 1st, it lasted from sunset to sunset and it was believed that the world of the living and the dead crossed over on this day.

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According to History.com: “In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.”

Celebrated for the last 2,000 years on the emerald isle as this traditionally spiritual celebration, how has Halloween become so Americanised?

Up until the Great Irish Famine hit in 1845, Samhain was nothing but this pagan festival, with tales of banshees and giants taking to our land.

“I was born on the night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds is whisper-thin and when magic, old magic, sings its heady and sweet song to anyone who cares to hear it,” Carolyn MacCullough described it as in her novel Once a Witch.

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It was when the Irish began emigrating to the United States, we saw a serious shift in what Halloween meant globally.

Traditionally, bonfires were lit and rituals were performed as a way of warding off any evil spirits entering this realm on the spooky night.

But all would change as soon as the famine hit and the Americans got their hands on the festival.

In the 1800s, Samhain became increasingly more Christianised and soon was renamed Halloween, with feasts being enjoyed among those living and the souls of those passed on.

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And this is where ‘trick or treat’ became a significant aspect of Halloween. People would go door to door disguised in costumes to exchange gifts and food with loved ones.

It was also customary for children to use the fear of spirits roaming for their own gain and plan out jokes on friends.

During this time it wasn’t only tricks and treats that were becoming popular, but Jack-o-lanterns were also starting to emerge.

Originally carved into turnips, faces were designed on the vegetable to warn off spirits but that was to change once the paddies hopped off the boat in America.

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In the mid 19th century, turnips were essentially non-existent in the States and as the Samhain traditions started spreading there, pumpkins were used for carving instead.

As time went on, and traditions evolved, Samhain died down on Ireland’s little island but Americans couldn’t get enough of it.

Ditching the pranks and opting to go all out with costumes and make up, Halloween quickly became what we know it to be today.

Originally makeup was worn by women during Samhain to attract future husbands and lure them in, but this gradually evolved into the fake blood and skeleton mouths we all know it to be.

About the author

Ellen Fitzpatrick

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