Children in Halloween costumes in the 1920s.

Anthropology: The History and Evolution of Halloween in the United States

Every year in the United States people all over the country celebrate Halloween on October 31st. On Halloween most children dress up in costumes and spend the night trick-or-treating. Halloween is not just for kids though. People of all ages enjoy dressing up in costumes, visiting haunted houses or attractions, attending parties, or having scary movie marathons. Today, Halloween is a night full of fun celebrations for individuals of all ages, but it was not always that way.

Early Origins of Halloween

The tradition of Halloween originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Ancient Celtics believed that the festival of Samhain was the most important of the four quarterly festivals. Samhain takes place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. The day represented the end of the summer and the harvest and the beginning of the winter, which was associated with death. After the harvest was complete for the day, people celebrating would join together and create a community fire. The participants there would take a flame from the community fire and bring it back home to relight their hearth. The Celtics believed that the barrier between worlds was crossable during Samhain. This caused them to leave offerings outside their villages to satisfy the fairies that might crossover. Celts would also dress up as animals or monsters to prevent being kidnapped by fairies. Fairies were not the only monsters thought to come over to the human world during Samhain. Some monsters that were associated to the mythology of Samhain are a shape-shifting creature called Pukah, a headless woman dressed in whited named Lady Gwyn, and impish creatures that can appear as headless men on horses called the Dullahan. It was believed that the Dullahan was a death omen for anyone who saw them.

In the Middle Ages, the celebrations of fire festivals continued. These bonfires became known as Samghnagans and were transformed into something more personal. The more personal Samhain fires became a tradition that’s purpose was to protect families from fairies and witches. The first jack-o-lanterns began to appear during this time as well. They were carved turnips that were attached to sticks and embedded with coal.

With the rise of Christianity, pagan communities began to shrink. Church leaders wanted to reframe Samhain and transform it into a Christian celebration. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory declared the fire festivals in the fall as All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. These new holidays did not get rid of the pagan aspects of the celebrations though. The date October 31st became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. This celebration contained many of the pagan practices and was adopted by Irish immigrants traveling to America in the 19th century.

A recreation of Samhain festival.

Halloween Comes to America

At first, the celebration of Halloween was only common in Maryland and other southern colonies. Due to the popular Protestant belief system in colonial New England, Halloween celebrations were extremely limited. With the beliefs and customs of all the different European groups coming together, the American version of Halloween started to form. Some of the first celebrations were parties that were to celebrate the harvest. The celebration included singing, dancing, telling each other’s fortunes, and sharing stories of the dead. Eventually, it included telling ghost stories and all kinds of mischief-making. Annual autumn festivals were common by the middle of the 19th century. The second half of the 19th century brought a new wave of Irish immigrants who began the popularization of Halloween celebrations throughout the nation. In the late 1800s, Halloween became a holiday focused on community and parties among neighbors. The parties consisted of games, seasonal food, and festive costumes. People were pushed away from making Halloween about things like ghosts, witchcraft, and mischief-making. This caused Halloween to lose a lot of its superstitious and religious associations by the start of the 20th century.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the holiday of Halloween became something secular and community centered. The celebrations included things like parades and town-wide parties. In the 1950s, Halloween transformed into a holiday directed towards children. Halloween parties moved to classrooms and homes because of the high number of children during the baby boom in the fifties. Between the 1920s and 1950s, the old tradition of trick-or-treating had a revival. Trick-or-treating provided a cheap way for the whole community to participate in Halloween festivities. The idea behind this was that families could prevent having tricks being played on them by giving the children in their neighborhood treats. This created a new American tradition for Halloween. Today, Americans spend billions of dollars on Halloween candy every year.

Children in Halloween costumes in the 1920s.

Tradition of Costumes

Dressing up in Halloween costumes is a tradition that has both European and Celtic roots. Since it was believed that the barrier between worlds was crossable on Halloween, it was also believed that when going outside they could encounter these ghosts coming back to the earthly world. To not be recognized by the ghosts crossing over, people would wear masks when going out at night. They believed that with the masks on the ghosts would think they were other ghosts.

In the United States during the 20th century, costumes were centered around spooky themes. Typically, the costumes were homemade, and the main goal of the costume was to conceal the identity of the person wearing it. The goal was not to covey a certain creature or character like most costumes now. In the early part of the 20th century, the only costumes that were commercially available were things like paper masks for children. Costumes usually did not look like specific creatures. Costumes were meant to look creepy and keep the identity of the individual hidden. A costume that kept identities hidden was especially important for teenagers and children who would spend Halloween night playing tricks on people. Rural places really embraced the pagan roots of the holiday. They embraced the holiday as a dark event that is centered around death, so they wore scary costumes and caused trouble.

During the Great Depression, adults began to organize neighborhood activities for young people, like trick-or-treating, costume parties, and haunted houses. They did this to hopefully put a stop to all of the vandalism and other trouble making that would occur on Halloween. With the formation of organized neighborhood activities, a new type of costume for kids was created. The costumes became themed around things that kids enjoy, like characters from movies, comics, and other pop-culture influences. Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Mickey Mouse were popular fictional characters for children’s costumes. Eventually, places like Sears began selling box costumes for children. After the Second World War, television brought pop culture into the homes of most of the United States. This caused American Halloween costumes to increasingly revolved around entertainment figures. When the 1950s came around, box costumes became more affordable. Children would dress up as things like princesses, clowns, cowboys, and superheroes. In the 1970s and 1980s, costumes began to appear more gruesome because of the rise of slasher horror movies. This time period also had a movement towards mask-less costumes with costumes inspired by Luke Skywalker and Wonder Woman. This movement is most like the Halloween costumes we know today. We now have a wide variety of costumes, from scary ones with masks to light-hearted ones themed around popular characters.

Children in Halloween costumes in the 1980s.

Tradition of Trick-or-Treating

Trick-or-treating was not just created to give children something to do on Halloween. The community organized trick-or-treat we know today was formed to prevent children from causing trouble on Halloween, but trick-or-treating goes back further than that. Though its true origin remains unclear, traces of the tradition can be found in Celtic festivals, early Roman Catholic holidays, and medieval practices.

In some Celtic celebrations during Samhain, people would wear costumes made from animal skins to hide from or drive away spirits seeking to harm humans. Some centuries later, people would dress as ghosts or other creatures and up for food and drink. This tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is known as mumming.

When Christianity took over most Celtic lands around the 9th century, it began to blend pagan rituals with Christian beliefs. Samhain was turned into All Saints Day and the holiday still honored the dead. During this time, the poor would go to the houses of the wealthier people. When visiting the poor would receive pastries called soul cakes. In exchange for the cakes, the poor people would promise to pray for the souls of the dead in family they received the cakes from. This tradition was known as “souling” and was later adopted by children who would ask for things like food, ale, and money.

In the late 19th century, children in Scotland and Ireland would participate in a tradition called “guising.” The children would dress up in costumes and would do things like sing songs, tell jokes, or recite poems. For this they would receive treats like fruits, nuts, or even coins.

Children trick-or-treating.

Popularity of Halloween Movies

Halloween movies have had a long history of being huge successes. The 1978 movie “Halloween” is considered to be a classic horror film down to its chilling soundtrack and inspired other similar movies that are categorized as “slasher films.” The movies “Scream,” “Friday the 13th,” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” are other extremely well-known slasher films. Slasher movies are not the only Halloween movies with major popularity and success. Family friendly films like “Hocus Pocus,” “The Addams Family,” “Tim Burton’s: The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” are also popular Halloween movies.

"Halloween" movie poster.

Halloween Spirits and Other Superstitions

Going back to its Celtic roots, Halloween was a festival celebrating the end of the summer in which people felt especially close to dead relatives and friends. People would leave treats by their door and even set up dinner places for the friendly spirits believed to be returning to the human world. They would even have lit candles along the side of the roads to help guide the spirits of their loved ones back to the spirit world. This differs greatly from how we feel about spirits on Halloween now. Today, ghosts and spirits that are believed to come out on Halloween are depicted as malevolent instead of friendly. The spirits of holiday have been turned into something scarier and darker than the original.

There is a superstitious belief that crossing paths with a black cat will bring you bad luck. This originated during the Middle Ages because then they believed that witches would disguise themselves as black cats.

A black cat.

Dead Halloween Traditions

Many of the forgotten Halloween traditions have to do with the living and the future. Today Halloween is focused around the dead and the past, but it was not always that way. Many of the old traditions involved things like helping or encouraging young women to find their future husbands. In Ireland during the 18th century, a matchmaker would place a ring into mashed potatoes on Halloween night. This was in hopes of whoever would ring the ring during their dinner would be brought true love. A different tradition is from Scotland. In this tradition a fortuneteller would tell young single women to have a hazelnut for each of her suitors and throw all of the nuts into a fire. The nut that burned to ash instead of exploding on the fire is the man she should pick to be her future husband. Another ritual performed on Halloween would be for women to drink a sugary concoction made of walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg before they went to bed to hopefully dream about their future husband. Another tradition is women would throw apple peels over their shoulder in hopes of the peels forming the initials of their future husband. Women also did rituals like standing in front of mirrors in a dark room while holding a candle. They hoped to see the face of their future husband over their shoulder in the mirror. There were some competitive rituals like the first women to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first woman to get married. Another competitive ritual is something we still do in a way. It was believed that the first woman to successfully get an apple while bobbing for apples would be the first to get married. Bobbing for apples today is just for fun instead of marriage.

Children bobbing for apples.


Halloween has changed a lot to become the holiday we know today. Similar traditions and holidays have existed in many different cultures and countries. The United States Halloween is a combination of Celtic and Christian roots with our own new twists. Halloween has evolved throughout the years to create the holiday we know and love now. This emphasizes how our culture has grown, changed, and adapted throughout the years.

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