A History of Halloween: Samhain to Trick or Treat
Imagine a night when fairies took human prisoners. Or the dead hovered nearby, whispering secrets to the living. A night when Johnne Feane confessed (in 1590 in Scotland), that he met with fellow witches, boarded a ship, drank all the wine, and then sank it.
The earliest mentions of Samhain (or summer's end, roughly November 1 in colder, northern European climates) come from sagas recorded by Irish monks starting in the 9th century. It was a time when a mesmerizing, albeit dangerous, otherworld full of supernatural beings became visible to men.
The Catholic church fixed two feast days on this point of the year: All Saints Day on November 1 (All Saints translated to All Hallows, which gives Halloween, or All Hallow's eve, its name), and All Souls on November 2nd, as the clergy taught that saints, spurred by prayers and tithes of the living, could intercede on behalf of the dead and quicken their ascent to heaven.
Many historians say church holidays were placed at this time of the year to obliterate the more pagan Samhain, and that's where Halloween gets its otherworldliness. Others say that the church holidays themselves--with their fairly graphic rituals pertaining to the dead (imagine moldering, skeletal bones dressed and propped up in church niches) gave Halloween its supernatural soul. Either way, by the end of medieval times it was a ghostly, creepy time of year. But Halloween also had a bright side. At summer's end the harvest was stored and livestock slaughtered, and there was plenty of food to go around. The wealthy--first kings and nobility, then manor lords, then simply richer folks--were able to give it away to the poor, who would sometimes disguise themselves and came calling. All Hallows kicked off the winter holiday begging season. Begin to sound familiar?
Lucky for us, fledgling America filled up with immigrants who carried old world Halloween folklore with them: the jaw bone of a black cat would scream as you passed it through your lips; if you placed an egg front of the fire on All Hallows eve and it sweated blood, you'd get the man you loved. Late 19th-century magazine fiction cast Halloween as a night for romance, as the excuse for a titillating brush of hands, cheeks, lips. Heroines, anxious to try the old-fashioned divinations of the night, ate apples at midnight in front of mirrors searching for the face of a future husband. Victorian Halloween parties took their cues from romantic fiction as well as from the writings of antiquarians eager to record rural folkways before they vanished. Then of course, there was the Victorian infatuation with ghosts to throw into the mix.
The gilded age of American Halloween crested in the 1920s. Vanderbilts and Rockefellers closed their summer homes and headed back to the city, and Halloween parties were the signal society events of the winter season. Debutantes danced waltzes at Halloween balls at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to a backdrop of jack o lanterns and yellow chrysanthemums. As the century wore on, lavish balls gave way to parades and parties sponsored by civic groups, and Halloween celebrations took over whole towns. There were wild, all-night carnivals on the piers of Venice Beach, CA and ragamuffin parades made up of 30,000 costumed marchers traipsing through the Bronx, NY. Everyone--nascent costume, mask, and candy manufacturers included--loved it.
Then came the war. From 1940 on, there were continual, organized attempts on the part of police or town leaders to calm Halloween celebrations; to move them indoors and away from destructive tricks; to give them over to younger and younger children. It was only because of UNICEF's brilliant "Trick or treat for UNICEF" campaign (1950) that door-to-door Halloween begging became acceptable. Once UNICEF got involved it was almost un-American, certainly uncharitable, to ignore kids who came ringing your bell. By the end of the 1950s, porch lights blazed from coast to coast come dusk on October 31st.