Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Uniquely American Halloween

With its roots in Pagan gatherings, it's still a holiday that brings us together.
halloween vintage

When Americans think of holidays that unite us and strengthen community, we don’t typically think of Halloween. Independence Day, with its explicit nationalist fervor, its parades, its church and neighborhood barbecues, perhaps tops the list. After that, we’re likely to look to the Christmas season, with its many public gatherings, office parties, and visits to family. Even Thanksgiving, which is now reduced largely to a family affair, is probably considered more communal than a day typically associated with ghosts, candy, and costumes.

Yet for all of its silly commercial trappings, Halloween, particularly as a traditional American festival, has a deep communal essence that we should seek to revive.

Halloween has always been an essentially communal event. Its ancient, pre-Christian history begins with the Celts, whose druid priests would build great sacred bonfires and burn crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities. Those who gathered there would wear costumes and attempt to tell each other’s fortunes. When the Romans conquered Celtic territory, they allowed and appropriated these traditions, incorporating the honoring of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. This is likely where the tradition of apple-bobbing originates. The Church in turn reinterpreted these festivals through the lens of the feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In the early 7th century, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Roman pantheon as a temple for Mary and early Christian martyrs. Pope Gregory III promulgated the feast of All Saints during the 8th century.

Halloween was at first rarely celebrated in the predominantly Protestant, anti-Catholic culture of colonial New England, though it was more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. Yet as different European ethnic groups arrived in the New World, their customs and traditions melded with those of Native Americans and soon fostered a distinctly American Halloween tradition. Early American celebrations included “play parties,” which were public events where neighbors celebrated the harvest. Those who gathered would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, and dance and sing, much as the Celts had 2,000 years before. Colonial festivities also included ghost stories and mischief-making (the “trick” in “trick-or-treat”). By the mid-19th century, annual autumn festivities had become commonplace across America.

It was also during this time that America’s earliest traditional literature that has come to be associated with Halloween first appeared. Most famous is, of course, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, first published in 1820. Like all good Halloween stories, it tapped into deep-seated cultural fears. In this case, it was a Headless Horseman believed to be a soldier of Hessian lineage—the same German ethnicity that had wrought havoc in the colonies during the Revolutionary War—who had lost his head to a cannonball in battle. Other American works on Halloween from that time period include those by Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Cask of Amontillado are among his best. Hearing these stories as a child imprinted vivid—though terrifying—memories on my mind.

The tradition of dressing up in costumes and visiting other houses to ask for food and money derived from Irish and English traditions. Strange practices involving yarn, apple parings, and mirrors were used by young women to divine the names or appearances of future husbands. Towards the end of the 19th century, the holiday developed a stronger focus on community events, in lieu of ghouls, mischief, and witchcraft. And in the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween largely scrapped its religious (be they Christian or pagan) overtones in favor of a a secular, community-based holiday, which included parades and town-wide Halloween festivities.

Thus far we have only touched upon those themes and traditions common among the descendants of Great Britain and Ireland. African-American culture also has its fair share of traditions, including many haunting stories similar to those of Irving and Poe. There are numerous collections of traditional black ghost stories, one of which was recorded by members of the Georgia Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Latino culture as well has its ancient Halloween heritage, the most well-known being the customs associated with Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead), a Mexican celebration that involves gatherings of family and friends who pray for and remember those who have died. All of these, now in our own day, have coalesced into a multi-varied American Halloween tradition.

What is particularly valuable with the American customs of Halloween—be they of WASP, Irish, African-American, or Latino origin—is their focus not only on family, but on the community in which one lives. This is most palpable today in trick-or-treating. The tradition as we practice it can be traced to All Souls’ Day parades in England, during which poor citizens would beg for food. Generous families would offer them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for promises to pray for deceased relations. What a beautiful means of encouraging charity, fostering civic bonds, and turning our gazes heavenward!

Even for us today, there is no other day of the year on which a person is able to meet and interact with so many of one’s neighbors. Regardless of whether or not you have children, a significant percentage of your neighborhood will be knocking on your door at some point on October 31. Many now eschew this part of Halloween, especially young adults who would rather attend parties elsewhere. But remaining in one’s home, or taking one’s kids out and about, deepens the bonds with those in our immediate surroundings and strengthens our sense of community, something we often realize only too late that we need.

So many aspects of Halloween drive us towards a shared American civic liturgy: the ancient historical traditions that intersect among the many cultures that share our nation; the communal gatherings, which still exist in such forms as fall festivals; and, of course, neighborhood trick-or-treating. As American history demonstrates, the holiday has always been an essentially communal one. Sadly, we have lost some of the most interesting and uplifting of those traditions. For the sake of our communities, especially in this time of increased political and cultural polarization, we would do well not only to preserve the shared societal aspects of the holiday that remain, but resurrect those that we’ve lost.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.