As LGBTQ people, many of us love Halloween and why not? We grew up having to wear a mask most of our lives and pretend to be people we aren’t, so it’s only fitting that we have a love for this mysterious holiday. Costumes and candy aside, many of us may not know some of the beginning and stranger customs that surround our favorite holiday. So let’s travel back through time and see where the origins came from and how it was celebrated in the past.
It is widely accepted that Halloween’s roots go back some 2000 years ago. Fall was when most Celtic tribes celebrated their new year and it fell roughly after the last harvest. This festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-win). The Celts also felt that this was the time of year with the veil between our world and the otherworlds was the thinnest. This was the time of year for communing with spirits and they built large bonfires to honor their ancestors. Villagers would attend these bonfires dressed in the skins and bones of animals.
Christianity and Early Halloween
Several centuries later, the Christians had started conquering the world. As their influence spread, several Chrisitian popes decided it would be best to try to replace these “pagan” holidays with ones that were their own. All Souls’ Day, which took place on November 2, was added to the celebration. This was a time for the living to pray for the souls of the dead. November 1st became All Saints’ Day and was the day for honoring the saints. This day was also called All Hallows and that made October 31st All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Hallows’. The beginning of what we now call Halloween.
So, you may be wondering where the trick or treating came from. Well I’m glad you asked. Despite the Christian influence, many of the Old English and Celtic tribes still associated this time of year as a time for the dead to wander. Wandering spirits would gather around houses of people, longing to still be around them. In order to make sure that they didnt hang around their houses, they set out gifts of food or treats to appease the spirits. As time moved on, people then started to dress in scary costumes and wander through the villages to get their own treats, this practice was called mumming. This may be the very beginning of trick or treating.
When did Halloween come to America?
The first of any celebrations of what would become our Halloween started in the southern colonies. These same festivities took place around the harvest. These celebrations were called “play parties” and consisted of swapping ghost stories and telling the fortunes of others. There was also a lot of singing, dancing, and of course drinking. Because of the Prostestant influence in the northern colonies, these festivities stayed in the southern colonies until the mid to late 19th century. This was also the time of year when they would perform fortune telling rituals in the hopes of finding their future husband. One of these rituals involved peeling an apple and then tossing the peels over your shoulder. The woman would then divine the initials of her true love from how the peels had fallen. It is thought that bobbing for apples may have started from a similar tradition. Women would bob competitively, where the winner would be the first to marry.
The Return of the Celts
By the mid 19th century, Ireland was going through the potato famine. This forced many Irish people to immigrate to America and bring their culture, as well. With their arrival we also saw the first jack-o’-lanterns. In Ireland, some of the first jack-o’-lanterns were carved out of turnips or potatoes. I have carved turnips into jack-o’-lanterns and let me tell you that it is not easy. It is a cool change from the standard pumpkins though. There still was a great deal of old customs and superstitions that surrounded this time of year with the Irish immigrants. It was during the earlier part of the 1800s that we were given the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a ghost story that still had some times to the scarier themes of old harvest traditions. Towards the late 1800s a change started to sweep across the country. The normal ghosts, tricks, and witchcraft that surrounded this time of year started change and people started having more neighborly town celebrations. These celebrations involved children and focused more on games, fall foods, and dressing in costumes.
The 1800s also gave us a very famous, albeit not always loved, Halloween candy. Wunderlee Candy Company, in Philadelphia, created what we know as the tri colored candy corn.This confection was an autumnal candy, due to its relation to harvest corn at that time of year and only became popular when another company brought the candy to the country around 1898. At that time, it was called Chicken Feed and was packages in boxes with the slogan, “Something worth crowing for.” By 1950 this candy became synonymous with Halloween, in the U.S.
The start of the Halloween we know
By the 1930s, Halloween was wholly a secular celebration. Communities celebrated it with parades and town wide parties. Though, there still was the trick factor of the holiday. Cow and outhouse tipping were common pranks. Also, in some of these towns, the night before was considered Gate Night. This was a prank night where kids would switch the gated among the neighbors fences.
By the 1950s Halloween started to shift away from a community event and more of a young person holiday. The parties that were once held community wide were moved to classrooms and individual houses, allowing for an ease of accommodation. Somewhere between 1920 and 1950, the practice of trick or treating started to return. It was a much cheaper way for the entire community to take part in the Halloween celebrations. This was the beginning of what we now know as modern Halloween.
The freedom that comes with Halloween
Costumes arent just for kids, this time of year. We still have Halloween parties and adults take part of dressing up as much as, if not more than, kids. It is one of the few times of year that we can leave who we are behind and become someone new. For some it can be a way to show a side of you that you have to keep hidden away from everyone else. Perhaps this is why there is a large “sexy” whatever costume business. LGBTQ people can have a night where they can truly let themselves out to be free, without the judgment that may come with it at other times of the year. It is also a time when even cisgendered people can take a walk on the more queer side, for the same reasons.
Oftentimes, Halloween was the one time where we felt truly alive. Putting on that costume was a way for you to become something more or to fully be who you were. For many young gay men, this was one of the first times that they could dress in drag and not have the shock and horror come from their family or friends. You could go to a party and live your fullest you and relish in the safety that came from this night of tricks and treats.
While the holiday has mainly been pushed by candy companies, it is still nice to remember its roots and the scariness that surrounds it. When you are out at your Halloween parties, take a moment to look up at the moon and wonder what spirits may be lurking about. Will you leave them a treat so they wont give you a trick?