Oddly enough, I didn’t really expect to run into that many significant cultural differences when I first moved from the United States to the United Kingdom. So I was actually a bit surprised when Halloween first came around. I expected there to be streets covered in decorations, but was surprised to see only a few pumpkins and paper bats placed here and there. Turns out that Halloween isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as it is in the US; back where I grew up, I was used to seeing houses on my block completely transform into haunted places complete with loud, scary noises and bloody, horrifying animatronic monsters! I never considered the differences in the material culture and presentation of the holiday across cultures.
With that in mind, I figured a brief look into the history of Halloween material culture may be an interesting blog post to celebrate the holiday this year! Fair Warning: Some of these decorations may be pretty spooky.
Most academics seem to agree that our modern celebration of Halloween stems from a pagan tradition, although there tends to be some debate over which one. Many point to Samhain, a Celtic festival that celebrated the end of the harvest season, the preparation for the upcoming winter, and the warding off of spirits by using large bonfires. Others, however, point to Pomona, which was allegedly a festival celebrated in the name of the Roman goddess of fruit and seeds, also named Pomona (Rogers 2002). Unfortunately, we have little textual or archaeological evidence to support either of these theories besides the similarities in timing with modern day Halloween – in fact, we have no evidence of the Pomona Festival ever occurring and no evidence to suggest how widespread Samhain may have been (Moss 2013).
Regardless of the actual origin point of the holiday, we can see that the introduction of All Saints Day to the 1st of November (possibly as a means of “Christianizing” Samhain) in the 8th Century eventually led to the standardization of many traditions that are still associated with Halloween. This includes perhaps the earliest form of “trick-or-treating”, where the poor would go from house to house and given soul cakes (pastries or breads made to honour the Dead) in exchange for praying for the dead of the household. Dressing up in costumes, or masquerading, also appears to have become a custom associated with All Saints Day, although it was for honouring the Christian Saints rather than terrifying the local neighbours (Bannatyne 1998). And, of course, there is that terrifying tradition that appears to have been originated in Ireland of “jack-o-lanterns” – these were faces carved into root vegetables like turnips…thankfully, the tradition turned to pumpkins once it was brought over to North America, which is good because have you seen how horrifying those turnip lanterns are?
Halloween and its traditions were introduced to the United States via the influx of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland during the mid 1800’s. However, up until the early 1900’s Halloween was mostly an adult-oriented holiday, celebrated by dinner parties. This led to the popularity of home decorations, which were often promoted by booklets and catalogues such as Dennison’s Bogie Book (Mitchell 2017).
By the 1920’s, Halloween was becoming more standardized in practice and in design into the holiday that we recognize today. Most decorations on offer for purchase were in the form of “die-cuts” – basically paper decorations – as these were easily disposable. You probably still see die-cuts used to this day – think of the sort of cute, paper Halloween decorations that were hung up around school. In the 1930’s, trick-or-treating was practised more widely around the United States, prompting the popularity of decorations that were more cute than creepy. From then onward, Halloween was more of a children’s holiday (Eddy 2016).
Today, Halloween has become entwined with modern consumerist culture – in fact, Americans spent approximately 9.1 billion dollars on Halloween decorations and costunes (Mitchell 2017). And that’s not surprising given today’s emphasis on consumerism, which has tied itself to concepts of nostalgia and pop culture that now seem to propel many modern day traditions for Halloween – from dressing up as your favourite 90’s television character to hosting a marathon of “classic” horror films. Trends in consumption and aesthetics have also added to the holiday’s general popularity – by 2010, Halloween has become the most popular non-Christian holiday in the United States (Moss 2013).
With these changes in popularity and material trends, there has also been a significant shift in the main demographic for Halloween – although still enjoyed by children and young people, there has been a rise in popularity for adult Halloween costumes and adult-oriented celebrations, like Halloween parties organized at clubs, bars, and pubs (Belk 1990).
This trend can also be seen in the movement towards associating Halloween with the truly terrifying and gory. Due to advances in technology, computer animation, and prosthetics, modern day horror media has never been more elaborate and realistic in their grim and grisly details. This has also been carried over to amateur Halloween decorations, with homemade haunted houses and terrifying attractions taking the place of trick-or-treat spots (for some of the most spectacular looking Halloween decorations and costumes, check out the TransWorld Halloween Showcase).
So, what can we see from this brief history of Halloween trends and patterns in material culture? Well, its hard to say – especially as the origins of the holiday are still widely debated. However, we could argue that Halloween has consistently been a holiday of invoking what is otherwise taboo – whether that’s communicating with spirits and saints, demanding treats and sweets from strangers and neighbours alike, playing pranks, or even just dressing a bit differently than what’s considered “normal”! Like most other popular holidays, Halloween has become entwined with consumerism and rooted to pop culture by a variety of tropes and customs. And yet, we could also say that it remains a holiday truly rooted in tradition – from the carving of Jack-o-Lanterns to trick-or-treating, these traditions have been carried over from one continent to another and have lasted hundreds of years…I think its safe to say that they don’t seem like they’ll be going away any time soon.
Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!
Bannatyne, L. (1998) Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Pelican Publishing Company.
Belk, R.W. (1990) Halloween: An Evolving American Consumption Ritual. Advances in Consumer Research. pp. 508-517.
Eddy, C. (2016) The History of Modern Halloween, as Seen Through its Decorations. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-history-of-modern-halloween-as-seen-through-its-de-1788207372
Ledenbach, M.B. (2018) Halloween Collector. www.halloweencollector.com
Mitchell, N. (2017) Halloween Decorating Hasn’t Been Around as Long as You Think. Apartment Therapy. https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-rather-modern-history-of-halloween-decorations-249863
Moss, C. (2013) Halloween: Witches, Old Rites, and Modern Fun. BBC: Religion & Ethics. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24623370
Rogers, N. (2002) Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press.
If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.
My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.