Curious Kids: How was Halloween invented? | Kiowa County Press

In 1952, kindergarten students leave school in Los Angeles, eager to celebrate Halloween.
Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

Linus Owens, Middlebury


curious children is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to [email protected]


How was Halloween invented? – Tillman, 9, Asheville, North Carolina


“It’s alive!” Dr. Frankenstein wept as his creation came to life. But the creature had a life of its own, ultimately spiraling out of its creator’s control.

Just like Frankenstein’s monster, traditions are also alive, meaning they can change over time or be reinvented. Constructed from a hodgepodge of miscellaneous pieces, Halloween is one of those traditions that has been continually reinvented from its ancient origins as a a Celtic pagan ceremony. Yet beneath the superhero costumes and bags of candy still beats the heart of the original.

The Celts lived in what is now Ireland as early as 500 BC. They celebrated New Year’s Day on November 1, which they called Her hand. They believed that before the transition to the new year, the door between the worlds of the living and the dead opened. The souls of the recent dead, previously trapped on Earth, could now move on to the underworld. As they believed that the spirits came out after dark, this supernatural activity peaked the night before, October 31.

The Celts invented rituals to protect themselves during this turbulent time. They put on costumes and disguises to deceive the spirits. They lit bonfires and planted candles in carved turnips – the first pumpkin lanterns – to frighten mischievous spirits. If all else failed, they carried a pouch of treats to pay wayward spirits and send them away on the way to hell.

Sound familiar?

Although focused on the deadSamhain was finally for the living, who needed a lot of help transitioning into the new year. The winter was cold and dark. Food was scarce. Everyone came together for one last party to break bread, share stories and stand up against the dead, strengthening community bonds when they were needed most.

a collection of lit pumpkins
Ghouls, goblins and glowing pumpkins have long been synonymous with Halloween.
Erik Freeland/Corbis Historic via Getty Images

When the Catholics arrived in Ireland around the year 300, they opened another door between the worlds, sparking considerable conflict. They sought to convert the Celts by changing their pagan rituals into Christian festivals. They renamed November 1 “All Saints”, which today remains a celebration of Catholic saints.

But the locals have retained their old beliefs. They believed that the dead still roam the Earth. Thus, the living still dressed in costumes. This activity was still taking place the day before. It just got a new name to fit the Catholic calendar: “All Hallows Eve”, which is where we got the name Halloween.

Irish immigrants brought Halloween to America in the 1800s while escaping the great potato famine. At first, Irish Halloween celebrations were an oddity, viewed with suspicion by other Americans. As such, Halloween was not celebrated much in America at the time.

As the Irish integrated into American society, Halloween was again reimagined, this time as an all-American celebration. It has become a party mainly for children. Its religious overtones faded, supernatural saints and sinners being replaced by generic ghosts and goblins. Carved turnips gave way to pumpkins now emblematic of the party. Although trick-or-treating resembles ancient traditions like guising, where costumed children went door-to-door for gifts, it’s actually an american inventioncreated to inspire kids to move away from rowdy holiday pranks into healthier activities.

Halloween has become a tradition that many new immigrants embrace along their journey to Americanness and is increasingly be exported all over the worldlocals reinventing it in new ways to fit their own culture.

postcard of a witch and a black cat riding a broom
A Halloween postcard circa 1910.
Trolley Dodger/Corbis History via Getty Images

What’s so special about Halloween is that it turns the world upside down. The dead roam the Earth. Rules are made to be broken. And children wield a lot of power. They decide which costume to wear. They make demands of others by asking for candies. “Trick or Treat” is their war cry. They do things they would never get away with, but on Halloween they act like adults, trying to see how it goes.

Because Halloween allows kids more independence, it’s possible to mark life milestones with the first holiday. First Halloween. First Halloween without a parent. First Halloween that isn’t cool anymore. First Halloween as a parent.

Growing up used to mean getting out of Halloween. But today, young adults seem even more attached to Halloween than children.

What has changed: adults or Halloween? Both.

Caught between childhood and adulthood, today’s young adults find Halloween a perfect match for their struggles to find themselves and navigate their way through the world. Their participation once again reinvented Halloween, now bigger, more elaborate and more expensive. Yet in become an adult celebrationit’s come full circle to get back to its roots as a holiday celebrated mostly by adults.

Halloween is a living tradition. You wear a suit every year, but you’ll never wear the same one. You’ve changed since last year, and your costume reflects that. Halloween is no different. Every year it’s the same party, but it’s also something totally new. How are you already reinventing the Halloween of the future today?


Hello, curious little ones! Do you have a question you would like an expert to answer? Have an adult send your question to [email protected] Please let us know your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age – adults, let us know your questions too. We cannot answer all questions, but we will do our best.

The conversation

Linus Owensassociate professor of sociology, Middlebury

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

About Florence M. Sorensen

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