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The 'spooktacular' history of Halloween

Ghouls and ghosts, goblins galore! Halloween is a spooky, fun-filled holiday for all ages, whether one is choosing to go trick-or-treating for free candy, dress up for a party or watch a scary movie. With all the excitement, it's easy to overlook the history of the holiday. If you're wondering where Halloween and all of its spooky traditions began, keep reading.

Halloween originated not in America, but instead in Europe, though it wasn’t called Halloween at the time. Even the season that it's celebrated in (fall) plays into the traditions that would become associated with Halloween as we know it today.

Salisbury University history professor Philip Hesser stated, "The background of Halloween, given that it is a holiday that we associate with Northern Europe in particular, is the change of seasons. Looking at the end of harvest going into winter, the world really goes into … a kind of death. During that time, it appears that people early on in Scotland and Ireland and other places like that in the north felt that in this transition the door was open a crack between the living and those who are beyond living, whether it is the dead or the spirits like the Banshee.”

Halloween was a time surrounded by the idea of the mischief that these spirits could create, and the primitive beginning of the holiday involved people trying to protect themselves from such mischief.

“There was a tradition … where people would actually dress like the dead and go from house to house to get food or things like that. It was a very primitive or early version of trick-or-treating that was meant to be a way to sacrifice, in a sense, in favor of the dead,” Hesser stated.

While Halloween originated in Europe, however, it spread to Canada and America — including the Delmarva Peninsula. Halloween night became a time that girls would get together to try and predict their futures, connecting with the spirit world.

“Young women would often come together, and they would engage in different activities that, in some ways, would help them to predict the future ... In some instances, they would do bobbing for apples, and there would be a special apple, and if they got that apple, they might be the first to marry or marry the person they want,” Hesser stated.

Meanwhile, the boys would get together on Halloween night as well. However, instead of focusing on predicting their futures, they focused on the mischief aspect that originated from the idea of the portal being open for the spirits to come to the living world. These ideas caused the boys to create some mischief of their own.

“What would happen with the boys is that they who would go out and they would knock on doors and run away, or they would throw cabbages and things like that at doors to make them go 'thump' in the night rattle … All of that was obviously meant to represent the banshees that are out there to make mischief who have this one opportunity to come to Earth and create problems,” Hesser stated.

Like today with many religions, not all were accepting of the ideas behind Halloween, especially the in terms of the interaction between the living and the dead.

“When the churches were not comfortable with the Halloween activities of boys and girls, [what] they might try to do is to channel that youthful energy into parties or gatherings, harvest festivals like they do today at some schools and churches, that would have apple bobbing and stuff like that, but would get away from predicting the future and would get away from the mischief,” Hesser stated.

Despite the resistance to Halloween that some proposed, however, it continued to grow and spread in tradition. In the early 1900s, Delmarva began to see some of the modern-day Halloween traditions, including trick-or-treating.

“The first references I get of Delmarva trick-or-treating were from the late forties, so it seems to have made its way across the country, first starting as 'treat-or-trick' and then 'trick-or- treat.' It was another way to sort of co-opt young people so they would be less likely to do mischief and more likely to just go out and get candy,” Hesser stated.

Costumes arose around this time, too, both in the form of spooky creatures like witches and goblins as well as in the form of one’s favorite characters.

“The business of the costumes would reemerge with trick-or-treating in the middle to late twentieth century based on those long-standing traditions that had probably survived in one form or another. This custom … became a way for young people to dress up either ghoulishly or in something that reflected what they wanted to be when they grew up, or as a character in a favorite story,” Hesser stated.

With such old origins, Halloween is both a fun and unique holiday to celebrate. Not only does it provide free candy, but it also provides friends and family the opportunity to dress up and spend time together. While you may not want to try to predict the future this coming Halloween night, or go out and create mischief, you definitely should find a way to celebrate this historically unique night.



Staff writer

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