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Weird History: Early Halloween Traditions


Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love everything about it. The costumes. The decorations. The candy. The movies. The traditions. I could talk about Halloween all day, any day, any time of year. And since this is the last weird history Friday before Halloween, that is exactly what I'm going to do today.


One of the fascinating things for me as a Halloween fan and a history nerd are the things we return to year after year. What people do and when they started doing it and why. I like to see whether or not those traditions are still around today, in one form or another. So, I've rounded up a few of the big ones. These traditions are more or less listed chronologically. Enjoy!



All Hollows' Eve


Halloween takes place every year on October 31st. Sources cite the Celtic "End of Summer" celebration called Samain (also spelled Saimhain) as the "precursor" to Halloween. Samain takes place on November 1st when "the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind, and the gods played many tricks on their mortal worshippers." Western religious holidays often match up with preexisting pagan traditions and so it should surprise no one that Christianity's All Saints (or Hollows') Day also takes place on November 1st. This makes the 31st All Saints (or Hallows') Eve.


The Jack O'Lantern

Carving pumpkins has become synonymous with Halloween and this is a tradition brought to America from Ireland. According to the History Channel:


"The practice of carving ghoulish faces on vegetables may have roots in Ireland, where large turnips served as early canvasses. In fact, the name, jack-o'-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities."


Bobbing for Apples

Believe it or not, bobbing for apples was originally a dating pool. Apples were meant to represent suitors and women would bob for apples as part of a matchmaking game. "European and Irish immigrants brought their traditions to the Americas, and that includes both pagan traditions and other traditions—like bobbing for apples," explains Reader's Digest. "Likewise, bobbing for apples became more well-known as some Americans researched their roots and wanted to use this Celtic tradition for Halloween."


Trick-or-Treating

Going around asking strangers for candy is a pretty long-standing practice. According to History.com, it dates all the way back to the middle ages, though American culture didn't formally start referencing it in popular culture until the 1950s.


Costumes

Dressing up in costumes is a huge part of Halloween, one celebrated by adults and children alike! Halloween costumes are another facet carried over from Samain traditions. "In order to avoid being terrorized by all the evil spirits walking the Earth during Samhain," notes the Library of Congress, "the Celts donned disguises so that they would not be mistaken for spirits themselves and be left alone."


Creepy Vintage Photos

So this might not necessarily be a tradition, but it is a phenomenon that has become something of a fascination during the age of the internet. Google "creepy Halloween costumes of the past". Go on! Do it! The intersection of photography in the late 1800s/early 1900s in conjunction with handmade Halloween costumes in a time before stores like Spirit Halloween makes for a chilling internet rabbit hole where you can see all kinds of vintage innovations that will keep you up at night.


Since it can be tricky tracking down public domain usage on a lot of these old photos, I recommend checking out these articles from Bored Panda and All That's Interesting for more creepy vintage costume photos!


Happy Halloween!



[Image Credit: vintage pumpkin postcard via Wikimedia Commons, calendar photo by Monstera Production via Pexels, jack-o-lantern photo by Lou Oms via Wikimedia Commons, Howard Chandler Christy's "Halloween" painting via Wikimedia Commons, trick or treating photo by Charles Parker via Pexels, Halloween class photo via Wikimedia Commons, creepy vintage Halloween costume photo via Flckr]

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