Halloween: The History of Spooky Season

By Natasha Eklund


Halloween is an exciting time of year: a time to get all dressed up, carve pumpkins, eat candy, and, of course, party.


Halloween’s origins are found in the pagan Celtic festival, Samhain. This festival occurred in autumn and contains a mix of supernatural beliefs with a mix of harvest, similar to our modern Halloween holiday. The Samhain festival was seen as marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. The tradition was in celebration of the final harvest, closing the stages of growth, and the beginning of winter. It is also known as a Fire Festival, as is seen as an assertion of life in the presence of an approaching dark and cold winter. It is associated with dark, supernatural beliefs connected with death or the underworld, and this festival is seen as a time of instability, leaving humans “susceptible to divine and supernatural interference,” which is where we get the idea of spirits being free to roam earth on Halloween.


This festival became Christianized in 1550 and renamed to All Saints Day, which occurs on November 1. It was around this time that the evening before November 1 became known as “All Hallows’ Eve,” a term used until mid-1700s; this too adapted some pagan characteristics. The combination tradition of All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints Day was brought to Canada in the mid-to-late 1800s by Irish and Scottish immigrants who were escaping the potato famine. People both celebrated and feared October 31 as the idea that the dead would be able to roam free among the living continued on. It was believed that, if the dead were mistreated, their spirits would haunt and punish the community. It was from this that people began to wear masks and costumes to frighten and confuse these spirits. From this, we are able to see how our modern tradition of Halloween was formed as many different beliefs and practices were slowly being merged together. Due to the Catholic Christianization of the Samhain tradition, the Devil began to be associated as one of the halloween icons, alongside witches.


The persecution of so-called witches began roughly in the 1480s. Accused individuals, most of whom were women, started being tortured, imprisoned, and executed for witchcraft. In 1590, King James VI of Scotland set out to meet his soon-to-be queen, Anne of Denmark, on October 31, but due to a horrible storm, had to turn back. James blamed this storm on witches in North Berwick, which began the horrible trials and executions. Scotland had seen approximately 4,000 individuals burned alive at the stake for witchcraft, and North Berwick saw 70-200 individuals being horribly tortured, imprisoned, and executed all under authority of King James. Some “signs” of witchcraft included having red hair, unusual “devils marks” (aka birthmarks), or being left-handed. As well, older women who worked with herbs and medicine were also a prime target. It is likely that many of these individuals had ended up confessing to witchcraft simply to end the torture; as well, many ended up simply dying from the injuries inflicted upon them. One of the brutal and horrific implements of torture used was known as the “breast ripper.” This device had 4 pronged levels that would encircle the accused person’s breast and rip it off.


In association with witchcraft, cats quickly became a symbol of Halloween as they were known to be connected to witches; this thought dates back to the Middle Ages. It was believed that witches were able to shapeshift into cats and that they would shapeshift their cats into horses to ride. Black cats in particular became associated with Halloween due to the connection with witchcraft and the superstition that black cats are a symbol of bad luck and a bringer of misfortune.


Another common icon and tradition of Halloween is the tradition of pumpkin carving. This originated from the Celtic tradition of carving turnips, which were used to keep away evil spirits. Reports of pumpkins being carved dates back as early as 1820s, but jack-o-lanterns were not a common occurrence or idea until the late 1800s.


Halloween, in early Edmonton, was characterized by the popular pranks of the 1900s which involved tipping outhouses, soaping windows, stealing gates and porch furniture, and attempting to block the street with whatever could be found. The general rule was that any pranking would be accepted as long as no one was hurt and property damage kept minimal–if you ask me, this is would be much more fun than spending an evening watching horror movies. However, pranking had taken a turn, as they begun to get more risky in the 1920s; by 1930 Edmonton’s glory days of Halloween pranks had come to an end, The pranks of 1930 involved damaging sidewalks and fences and derailing a streetcar. There was an instance where eight young men stole and destroyed a horse-drawn wagon.


Trick-or-treating wasn’t always a common part of Halloween. In 1927, the town of Blackie, Alberta, was the first to record the phrase “trick-or-treat” in its local newspaper, as some pranksters arrived at a house and demanded a trick or a treat. However, this prank had formed into a new Halloween tradition, as by the 1930s, most children in Edmonton had their own homemade costumes, and by 1940, vacuum-formed masks had become available to buy. If you ever look up the early handmade Halloween costumes, you will see they were quite terrifying. The common costumes children chose were a bit of an issue with presenting race as many children would paint their faces black, and there was a stereotypical “Indian princess” costume.


The popular treats among the early 20th century trick-or-treaters consisted of popcorn, apples (and other fruits), and nuts. Of course, the concerns of Halloween safety were an issue far before the first reported (and false) claim of poison candy in the 1960s. There has been a continuing scare that Halloween candy may be poisoned or altered in some fashion, causing harm to an unsuspecting child. Very rarely are these cases proven true. Sadly, these concerns have brought an end to homemade candy apples and other delicious treats. Just last year, a report of a child eating suspicious candy and falling ill was reported and, after the police tested all candy, they revealed there were no traces of poison.


Now that you know some fun facts about our modern Halloween tradition and how it has developed, go out and have fun, and of course, stay safe!

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