We’ve discussed how Halloween was rooted in the harvest festivals of Europe in Roman times, and how the early Christian church combined the two festivals of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day into a celebration that absorbed some of the traditions of the older celebrations.
With the Protestant reformation in the British Isles, Halloween’s association with a church-sanctioned holiday faded, and it became more of a folk holiday. In addition to bonfires, pranks and costumed neighbors going door to door, traditions arose of people gathering for small parties, roasting chestnuts and playing games. The practice of bobbing or “dunking” for apples probably dates from this period. Halloween had become an established time for pranks, some of them mean-spirited, such as putting farm wagons on barn roofs, taking gates off their hinges and hiding them, and blocking up chimneys.
Halloween traditions came to America with immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland, but the holiday did not become widely popular until the middle of the 19th century, when the famines in Ireland brought a wave of Irish immigrants who settled in large cities. Halloween traditions were adopted by other immigrant groups, including German-Americans, who had similar customs associated with the Martinmas holiday (November 11).
Later in the 19th century, Halloween became an occasion for Irish-American and Scottish-American pride, similar to St. Patricks’ Day. As these immigrant groups developed political power, Halloween became a time for parades, dinners and speeches, since it fell at the same time that many councils and legislatures began their sessions. Halloween dances and parties soon became fashionable in high society. The traditional games and dressing up in costumes appealed to people of all ages, and ads for Halloween masks, costumes and candy began to appear newspapers around the 1870’s.
At this same time, new Halloween traditions were growing on college campuses. The holiday became a time for elaborate pranks on faculty and student organizations, funny demonstrations at sporting events, and, of course, parties. On some campuses, freshman classes (who were often hazed by upperclassmen) marched together at night in their bathrobes. In other college communities, students established a tradition of going to off-campus theaters (not movie theaters, movies hadn’t been invented) and making noise throughout the performance. This practice became so well-established near some colleges that audiences expected it and performers played along.
Source: Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, by Nicholas Rogers
More updates and Halloween History coming up!