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BOO! The History of Halloween

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Millions of Americans – children and adults – will dress up and celebrate Halloween Thursday evening. But where did this unique holiday come from?

What we celebrate today as Halloween – has its origins among the ancient Celtics who lived across what’s now Europe.

“They divided their calendar year into four major holidays; and according to the calendar year, based off of the beginning and end of calendar years, they would have different celebrations,” says Andy Barbero, who teaches history, languages and social sciences at Pensacola State College.

He says the festival that became Halloween was called “Samhain” (sow-WEEN) – the largest and most important holiday in the Celtic year.

“They would do things like sacrifice animals, give up fruits and vegetables,” said Barbero. “Lit bonfires in honor of the dead, they were interested in appeasing ghosts, fairies and demons. The dark, the dead, you name it.”

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as the day to honor all Catholic saints and martyrs. All Saints’ Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain, as Christian missionaries began to convert the Celts. All Saints Day remains a feast day in the Church.

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Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
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Andy Barbero, professor, Pensacola State College.

European settlers brought the holiday to the New World, where Halloween evolved into a secular, community-based event highlighted by children’s activities. Barbero says one modern-day tradition originated from the practice of “mumming.”

“People would put on disguises [and] engage in a trick-or-treat kind of game,” Barbero says. “So over time, as this becomes more family-friendly, the idea of mumming became trick-or-treating as we know it.”

Americans spent more on Halloween candy in 2018, due to rising candy prices and more generous spending habits. The firm HIS Markit says the 4.2 percent jump brought total spending last year to $2.5 billion, or just over $20 per household. That keeps Halloween the second most commercially successful holiday behind Christmas.

Another Halloween tradition is pranking – the “trick” in trick-or-treating. PSC’s Andy Barbero says this, too, comes from mumming, and from 18th century churches, which doubled as town hall meeting places.

“It’s where people met with their neighbors and engaged in contemporary topics of conversation,” says Barbero. “So this just kind of became another game, another way for each other to have fun around their church community.”

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Orson Welles directs "War of the Worlds" radio play, October 30, 1938.

Pranking became so notorious in the 1930s that an organized movement formed to tone it down. One of the most famous pranks was Orson Welles’ radio presentation of H-G Wells’ “War of the Worlds” in 1938, which panicked much of the nation.

Many churches hold “Fall Festivals.” Some link Halloween to Satan and Satanic worship. But Barbero says while individual churches will have their own versions of celebration, many in fact embrace different traditions that are unrelated to Halloween – or to Satan.

“The fall festivals generally are linked with German traditions – Oktoberfest. A celebration of German and Irish heritage usually less to do with  Halloween, and more to do with kind of a celebration of the fall; of the harvest.”

And for all you adult party animals out there, you’ve helped make Halloween the 3rd biggest party day of the year -- behind New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.