Halloween - American Holidays
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banner says History of Halloween
(Photo credit: Halloween Express)

September 2016 - Halloween is a pretty new holiday - American children didn't start trick-or-treating on Halloween until about eighty years ago. Halloween is a combination of several different holiday traditions: Native American ones, Irish ones, and old Roman ones.

By about 500 AD, Mayan and Aztec people in Central America were celebrating the Day of the Dead. In August, people would decorate with skulls as a way of worshipping the goddess of death.

In Northern Europe at the same time, people celebrated the Feast of the Dead at the end of October, with bonfires, sacrifices to the gods, and jack o'lanterns carved from turnips. When people became Christians, about 500 AD, they renamed this holiday "All Saints' Day", and called the night before All Saints' Day "Halloween".

In southern Europe, people dressed up around the darkest time of the year (which is now Christmas for many Americans), and went to rich people's houses and demanded nice things to eat (and especially wine to drink!). People were already doing this in the Roman Empire, and all through the Middle Ages Christians begged at Christmas all over Europe.

jack-o-lanterns on steps

When Spanish people conquered the Aztecs in the 1500s AD, and Aztec people became Christians, their priests told them to move the Day of the Dead to the end of October, to match up with Halloween. Beginning in the 1800s, a lot of people came to the United States from Ireland. These people brought with them their Halloween bonfires and jack o'lanterns.

But there was still no trick-or-treating. Kids usually begged for treats at Christmas, not Halloween. But about 1900, city mayors tried to stop begging at Christmas, and kids began to go door to door at Thanksgiving instead. Then about 1930, teachers and mayors encouraged parents to move trick-or-treating even earlier, to Halloween. By the 1940s, most kids went trick-or-treating at Halloween, and also carved pumpkins and decorated with skulls. Gradually, especially on the West Coast, Halloween has gotten more and more mixed with the old Day of the Dead, so the old native traditions are becoming normal again.

Learn by doing: decorate your house for Halloween
More about skeletons
More about pumpkins

Bibliography and further reading about Halloween:

Ghost Dancers
American religion
American History
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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