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UK folklorist explains the spellbinding history of Halloween

By Lindsey Piercy 

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 31, 2022) — Dressing up in a creative costume, gathering candy from neighbors until dusk and watching spooky movies late into the night.

These are time-honored Halloween traditions that might have you believing the mostly light-hearted holiday is uniquely American.

If so, you’ve been tricked.

Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby
Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby

Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby, a professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, says Halloween didn’t start in the United States. As a folklorist, she knows the spine-chilling holiday dates back thousands of years ago to Celtic beliefs. 

In the Q&A session below, we’re taking a deeper look at the history of Halloween, as well as the origin stories behind some of our favorite symbols — from orange and black decorations to eerie jack-o'-lanterns.

UKNow: You are a folklorist. For those who don’t know much about your area of expertise, could you explain your research?

Rouhier-Willoughby: Folklorists study traditional culture, such as songs and stories, rituals and holidays, and objects — including food, instruments, pottery, weaving and embroidery, and housing. Folklorists focus on unofficial cultural forms to understand how people develop their identity as a member of a group — be it a family, a region or state, a profession, an ethnicity or a hobby.

UKNow: As a folklorist, how are you uniquely positioned to answer questions about the history of Halloween?

Rouhier-Willoughby: One central aspect of folklore is to understand motifs and variations in spoken, behavioral and physical folk materials. To do that, we study the history of a form and how it has developed. I’m a specialist in celebrations/rites and legends, and I teach courses at UK, as well as write about these topics.

Ancient history of Halloween

UKNow: Why do we celebrate Halloween on Oct. 31?

Rouhier-Willoughby: The Celtic calendar had four major holiday celebrations — one in each season of the year (winter, spring, summer and fall). The most important of them was Samhain, which was the Celtic New Year celebration. As a result, Oct. 31 was Celtic New Year’s Eve. This marked the end of the year and the beginning of a new agricultural cycle. It was the date when animals were slaughtered in preparation for the winter and harvests were completed (and celebrated). This day was seen as a time when the veil between this world and the otherworld was thin, so that ancestral spirits may return to earth (or people may have access to the otherworld). Other supernatural creatures, like fairies, are often said to be active on this night as well. The spirits may be both beneficial (helping to assure that the next harvest is good) or harmful (causing harm to people because of the contact with the supernatural). Samhain activities were designed to attract the positive forces and also to protect from dangerous ones.

UKNow: Where and how did Halloween originate?

Rouhier-Willoughby: Halloween originated among the Celtic peoples in Europe. The Celtic peoples include the Irish, Scots, Welsh and Bretons (who live in France). We have records of Samhain celebrations in Irish sagas recorded from the ninth to 12th centuries, but certainly the holiday was celebrated much earlier than that. However, before that date, there was no record in writing of how it was celebrated. The name Halloween comes from All Hallows (meaning holy) Eve(ning), which refers to All Saints Day that follows on Nov. 1 in Catholicism.

Halloween comes to America

UKNow: How has Halloween evolved over the decades?

Rouhier-Willoughby: Halloween as a holiday was brought to the U.S. in the 19th century by Irish immigrants. At first, it was limited largely to where those immigrants lived. But by the 1930s, non-Irish Americans had also begun to celebrate it as well.

The idea of witches and Halloween came from the American tradition largely. The attitude that Halloween is associated with evil forces (like the undead) rather than protective spirits of the ancestors also derives from the American interpretation of the holiday. Ideas about witches and evil undead forces came about in the medieval period in Europe and were brought to the United States by Puritans. Halloween in North America incorporated those beliefs, since the idea of threatening supernatural forces was already connected with the holiday.

UKNow: What ancient traditions have we kept, and what are some of the more modern concepts that have been introduced over time?

Rouhier-Willoughby: We have kept the mumming and the carving of the vegetable with a fire in it — although we used a native vegetable, the pumpkin, which was not grown in Europe then. But we have also made it a more commercial holiday, with kids dressing as pop culture figures.

We have introduced Halloween back to adults, with costume parties, beginning largely in the 1960s-70s. Since it allows for transgression, we also find overt sexualization of the holiday during these parties. Adults are no different than kids in that sense. We like to break rules, and holiday festivals allow for that to happen. Halloween, because it has lost the connection to the Christian calendar, allows for transgression more than other celebrations may, but it is part of a pattern of holiday behavior that is pretty common among peoples of all cultures.

Halloween is no different than any other annual celebration at its heart. Holidays always allow people to break rules and they give people a break from structure, but they also teach people about tradition and social rules even as they are breaking them. Ironically, breaking rules means we reinforce why they are important to us.

The history behind our favorite traditions

UKNow: What are the origins behind common Halloween traditions:

  • Why are Halloween colors orange and black?
    • Rouhier-Willoughby: Orange comes from the pumpkin, and black came about because of the evil forces that Americans associate with the holiday, for example, the witches and black cats from medieval European beliefs.
  • Why do people of all ages wear costumes?
    • Rouhier-Willoughby: The costumes were often associated with spirits of the dead or with supernatural creatures as a way to honor the dead, as is still done in Mexico at this time of year, and also to fend off dangerous supernatural creatures. While mumming (dressing in costumes and asking for food), people would carry with them a lantern made from a hollowed-out large turnip to light their way. That practice was based on the legend of Jack O’Lantern, a blacksmith who was refused entry to both heaven and hell. While trying to get into hell, he stole a burning coal by scooping it up in a turnip he happened to be eating. He wanders the earth, using the coal in the vegetable to light his way, just as the mummers do. The celebration was also a way to honor the harvest since Samhain marked the end of the agricultural season and beginning of the next. It was the entry into the darker times of the year, when days were shorter, so the fire also represents the protective power of light until the return of the sun in spring for the new crop season.
  • Why do children go door-to-door to collect candy?
    • Rouhier-Willoughby: Halloween (like New Year’s traditions in many different cultures) has long been associated with masking and mumming. Groups of people go from house to house, ask for food and often offer a blessing to the household (people and animals) for the New Year in response to the treat. If they were refused, they would punish the householder by doing some damage (the trick) or curse them in the New Year. While in Celtic traditions, both children and unmarried adults would go mumming, in the United States, trick-or-treating is usually limited to children. However, teens also take part in tricks (sometimes in costumes) without asking for candy. Holidays often have a subversive element, where one group is allowed to break social norms or rules without any serious repercussions; it’s part of the holiday itself and just accepted. 

Commercialization of Halloween

UKNow: How has commercialization and pop culture changed how we celebrate Halloween?

Rouhier-Willoughby: We have lost the connection to the Christian religious calendar, largely, at least among non-Catholic populations, since Nov. 1 is All Saints Day and Nov. 2, All Souls Day (which is also called the Day of the Dead among Mexican Catholics). Most Protestants do not celebrate those days. For that reason, as well as Halloween’s association with evil supernatural figures that is true here, it has caused concern among some in the United States. People try to remove it from the supposed “demonic” associations and make it more associated with the harvest, which interestingly, was its original purpose in Celtic traditions.

UKNow: What impact has the movie/television industry had on Halloween?

Rouhier-Willoughby: Legends and rumors about poisoned Halloween candy or razor blades in apples have also affected how it is celebrated, because people are afraid of strangers who try to harm children. Although there is little documented evidence for this practice, belief in the legends is strong, so it has affected how people celebrate. Some take their kids only to the houses of people they know or they do a trunk-or-treat with people in a community group, such as a church or other organization. Pop culture interpretations in movies, where evil forces or murders are prevalent on Halloween, also feed into the idea that the holiday is dangerous. For example, there are rises in rumors about Satanic rites on Halloween that have little to no actual connection to the holiday’s history. Horror films draw on American folk tradition about witches and evil forces and also reinforce those associations. When combined with the loss of the Christian celebrations associated with the holiday and also its connections to the harvest, the demonic associations are those that most people associate with Halloween at its core.

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