Halloween: A Spooktacular Holiday In Disguise

For more than a century, Americans have loved dressing up to celebrate Halloween. Today, Halloween costumes and decorations start popping up in stores as early as July and August. Each year, over 30 million Americans celebrate October 31st by exchanging Halloween greeting cards (and recently, Halloween photo greeting cards), trick or treating, going to parties, watching horror films, visiting “haunted house” attractions, and of course, dressing up in ghoulish costumes to make it a night of fun and frights.

From ghosts, witches, and fairytale creatures to movie monsters and modern superheroes, choosing the right costume for trick-or-treating is a beloved childhood ritual. Even as adults, Halloween remains a special night to dress up and party with friends.

But when and where did the tradition of wearing Halloween costumes originate? The answer lies an ocean away, and is far older than America itself.

Up to 2,000 years ago, ancient Roman authors wrote about the Celtic tribes in modern Germany and France donning the skins and skulls of livestock to dance around bonfires during the Samhain festival—the time of year when the spirits of the dead, as well as fairies and other unworldly creatures, were said to walk the earth. The crude costumes may be been used to summon animal spirits, or to confuse wandering souls.

Centuries passed. Customs changed, but wearing costumes remained.

“In Scotland, Halloween was a night of mischief and confusion. The spirits of the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white or disguises of straw. The boundary between the living and the dead was obliterated together with other divisions, including the separation of the sexes…boys dressing as girls and vice versa.” (Halloween Customs in the Celtic World, Bettina Arnold, University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, 2001)

In Wales, young men dressed in women’s clothes, known as “hags,” pulled pranks and made mischief. In Ireland, a procession of youths in various costumes led by “Lair Bhan”—a man dressed in white sheets with a wooden horse’s head—went from door to door offering good luck to householders who gave them gifts, and cursing those who didn’t.

Children guising, or donning a costume, and going from door to door begging for treats like money, apples, nuts or a cake, is a tradition in Scotland, similar to the Christian practice of “souling” on All Souls’ Day in 14th century Britain, when beggars, children and some adults knocked on doors to receive soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead.

In 17th century Britain, costume parties were a popular pastime for the upper classes.

“Though Hallowe’en is decidedly a country festival, in the seventeenth century young gentlemen in London chose a Master of the Revels, and held masques and dances with their friends on this night.” (The Book of Halloween, Ruth Edna Kelley, 1919)

When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to North America, they brought their Halloween customs with them.

Colonial Americans celebrated Halloween as a harvest festival with dancing, story telling, and pranks. In fact, people using Halloween as an excuse for mischief and practical joking led to a shift in the holiday’s focus. By the 19th century, Americans preferred Halloween parties, masquerades, and community events, but did not appear to take on the custom of costumes until the very beginning of the 20th century.

The first mass produced Halloween costumes for children appeared in the 1930s; prior to that time, children’s costumes were made at home. In the beginning, many costumes had a supernatural or gothic themes. However, as the 20th century progressed, media figures from movies, comic strips, comic books, radio and eventually television gained in popularity, as did the practice of trick-or-treating.

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