Osceola County Historical Society Blog

Not Your Mother's Halloween: The Origins and History of the Spookiest Night in America

Posted by Larissa Bixby on Sep 20, 2018 8:00:00 AM


(Etching of Bronze Age Celtic Druid Samhain Festival at Stonehenge.)


Upon the night, when fairies light

On Cassilis Downans dance,

Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,

On sprightly coursers prance;…


Some merry, friendly, country-folk,

Together did convene,

To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,

And haud their Halloween…


The lasses feat, and cleanly neat,

Mair braw than when they’re fine;

Their faces blithe, fu’ sweetly kythe,

Hearts leal, and warm, and kin’;

The lads sae trig, wi’ wooer-babs,

Weel knotted on their garten,

Some unco blate, and some wi’ gabs,

Gar lasses’ hearts gang startin’

Whiles fast at night.”


Halloween, Robert Burns 1785


Long before October 31st became a night of candy and mischief, before princesses, video game heroes, and ghouls of all kinds walked the chilly, dusk lit streets in hopes of filling their pillow case sacks with all manner or sweets and sugar, Halloween was a night of celebration and a warning of the season to come.


(The fields harvested before Winter)

In the pre-Christian era, in Gaelic territories (today’s England, Ireland, Scotland, and Northern France), what became known as the month of October, occupied the end of the harvest season on the Gaelic Wheel of the Year. The chill of winter was quickly approaching, and for peoples all across Europe, winter brought hardship and death. People were harvesting the last of their crops and storing them for the cold and dark winter months to come. Samhain was the final harvest festival in a trio of festivals that marked the cycle of the seasons and the year of the Gaelic peoples. By the time of the festival, crops were harvested, bread had been baked and stored, the livestock brought in from the pastures, meat from either hunting or the herds of domesticated livestock was curing in salt or smoked, and gathered herbs and other fruits of the forest was drying in the rafters of the thatch roofed homes. The Samhain festival and all of its preparations was spent as a community; thanking the gods for the bounty of that year’s harvest and praying for safe passage through the depths of the coming winter. Feasting, dancing, and a reenactment of the death of the Oak King were the highlights of the evening’s revelries.

halloween2018(3)(16th century Harvest Festival in France)

As the era of the Gaelic tribes drew to a close, Christianity crashed across Europe like the wave of a typhoon. In an effort to convert the pagan communities of Northern Europe, Christian leaders appropriated and repurposed many festivals and celebrations, including Samhain. As Christian influence deepened within traditionally pagan lands, the harvest festival’s darker details were emphasized and began to shape the holiday into a night a terror. For their pagan precursors, the Samhain festival marked a turning of the year, where the good and helpful faeries disappeared back to their sídhe, or earthen mounds. The malevolent faeries began to prowl the edges of night and wreak havoc across the countryside. Whatever crops were left in the field after night had fallen on Samhain, belonged to the faeries. As the centuries passed, the tales of Samhain, now Hallowe’en reflected the fears and insecurities of Christian agrarian societies. It was the one night a year when demons and witches seemed to roam freely, and people were cautioned to stay indoors. The fires of the harvest festival were no longer lit at community events, and instead were placed as candles inside of turnips. These turnips, in turn, were placed within the windows of homes to light the way for the unlucky travelers caught out on Hallowe'en, and to keep the evil spirits at bay.


(A Collection of Halloween Turnips by English Heritage from Dover Castle, southern England)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Irish and Scottish immigrants to the United States brought their customs and beliefs with them, this included Hallowe’en. Unlike the moors of Scotland or the rolling greens of Ireland, the people of America flocked to large metropolises and neighbors practically lived on top of neighbors. New cities sprung up in the wake of expansion across the North American continent and as people moved they brought their traditions with them. Time and the drastically different living conditions in the United States transformed Halloween once again. Halloween was returning to its roots as a night of merriment. Beliefs formally viewed as superstitious and outmoded were being shed, and by the mid to late 19th century, people were donning costumes, throwing parties and roving packs of children were taking on the roles of mischievous “spirits” and terrorizing those caught out in the night.

halloween2018(5)(Vintage 1912 Halloween Greeting Card)

As the years have marched on, Halloween has become a staple holiday of the American calendar. Tricks have given way to treats, carved turnips have passed the candle to pumpkins, and the spookiest night of the year lives on as an evening for adults and children alike to set aside their everyday lives and transform into someone, or something completely different and wild. Join the Osceola County Historical Society on October 26, 2018 at Kissimmee Main Street’s Boo! On Broadway event. Dress up, trick or treat, and take a twilight historical walking tour of Kissimmee to put you in the mood of the season.



Image 1: Shofner, Shawndra. 2005. Ancient Wonders of the World: Stonehenge. Mankato, MN: Creative Publishing.

 Image 2: Parker, Henry. Harvest Time in Lambourn, Berkshire. Circa 1890. Getty Images. Accessed 19 September 2018. https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/illustration/lambourn-harvest-stock-graphic/81079977

Image 3: Delort, Charles Edouard Edmond. La Fete De Vendange. 19th century. Retrieved from Pinterest on 19 September 2018.

Image 4: Ison, Christopher. Halloween Turnips. 20 October 2015. AFP Photo Accessed 19 September 2018. https://www.yahoo.com/news/halloween-turnips-britons-urged-return-tradition-115616910.html

Image 5: Unknown. Halloween greeting card. 1912. Accessed 19 September 2018. http://www.i-mockery.com/minimocks/vintage-halloween-cards3/

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Topics: Osceola History, History, Halloween Traditions, Pumpkins, Halloween, Harvest Festival

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The Osceola County Historical Society is focused on preserving Osceola County’s rich, cultural history while sharing it with others. This blog is perfect for just that. 

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