Halloween started long ago, with deep roots tracing back to the Iron Age. It started as the Celtic holiday, Samhain, the day when spirits passed over into the next realm. The date, October 31st, was the last day on the Celtic calendar and held special significance. It was the start of the harvest season when the natural world would transform into hues of brown, orange, and gold. The Halloween customs of dressing up in scary costumes, going door-to-door for treats, and carving pumpkins began centuries ago. The outfits and decor may have changed over the years, but it’s easy to see that many of the traditions are still alive and well today.
Costumes from magical realms
While ghouls and goblins have always been a popular go-to costume for Halloween festivities, so have wizards, witches, fairies, angels, and demons. The enchanted realm has always been a source of fascination for humans of all ages. The fantasy of portraying a magical entity is just too fun to pass up and is one of the most time-honored traditions of dressing up for All Hallow’s Eve.
The Celts believed ghosts weren’t always tied to scary beings but were sometimes the friendly spirits of deceased relatives or friends. Families set places for them at the dining table and left treats on the doorsteps of their homes. Beginning in the late 1700s, pranksters posed as ghosts, putting on white muslin robes, coloring their legs and arms with white chalk, then running through the streets and graveyards terrorizing locals. By the 1900s, bedsheets with holes cut out for the eyes became the official and affordable costume for portraying ghostly apparitions.
Some Halloween costumes were purposefully intimidating. Younger children and those who weren’t keen on decking out in evil-inspired garb often chose cultural icons instead. Thanks to the dime novels that emerged in the 1800s, the cowboy became a symbol of exciting adventures and heroics. Children and young adults alike fantasized about life on the range, and Halloween was an opportunity to partially live out the dream.
There’s no secret that there’s a kinship between humans and the animal kingdom. The Celts believed spirits walked the Earth on Samhain, and historians say they wore animal skins to confuse these spirits or to avoid being possessed. Wearing animal heads on Halloween created from paper-mâché or other materials dates back to a variety of European cultures, and they were a popular choice for costumes in communities across the U.S.
Decades before the sanguine characters from True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and Twilight grabbed our attention, novels released throughout the 1800s like “Vampyre” and “Dracula” inspired an obsession with vampires. The traditional look of vampire costumes — the cape, the tuxedo, and the medallion — emerged in the early 1920s via a London stage play. But it was Bella Lugosi’s 1931 appearance as Count Dracula in the film version that led to a Halloween costume rendition that survived from one generation to the next.
Dressing up as military and historical figures, princesses, kindly clowns, and huggable characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales allowed Halloween revelers to wear friendlier, less-threatening costumes. After World War II, as television brought pop culture to the masses, costume companies started creating ready-made versions of Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Little Orphan Annie, and other characters. Fewer people made their own costumes, and most purchased them at local shops or ordered them through catalogs from department stores, like Sears.
Pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns
Pumpkin carving is a popular holiday activity. But in earlier days in Scotland and Ireland, people dug out the insides of turnips or beets, carved a face into one side, added a candle, and dubbed them “jack-o-lanterns.” They represented spirits or souls released from purgatory. By the 1920s, pumpkin carving was an official tradition. Pumpkins became synonymous with the holiday, making their way into all types of Halloween decor as well.
Ghouls, zombies, and devils
People have always expected a night of macabre traditions filled with scary, not-of-this-world imagery on Halloween. Tales of ghouls, zombies, devils and other frightening entities have influenced costume choices in cultures around the world. Before the days of store-bought costumes, people created their own from what they had, ending up with some bizarre and terrifying creatures you wouldn’t want to encounter, especially on the scariest night of the year.
The out-of-control 1920s
Halloween in the early 1900s was a time of spooky but family-friendly fun, with haystacks, carved pumpkins, and cutouts of witches and black cats to enhance the mood. But by the 1920s, expert levels of mischief erupted in communities across the country. With their faces and identities hidden, vandals felt brazen enough to do what they pleased on Halloween, causing chaos and fear among locals, along with massive property damage and acts of violence. Towns of all sizes banned the holiday altogether. It wasn’t until after WWII that people rekindled its traditions.
In ancient times, anthropologists say that people wore masks impersonating their dead ancestors. During the Renaissance, masquerade parties that included a bit of debauchery were all the rage, and the upper-class attendees wore masks to conceal their identities. By the 1950s, store-bought costumes included masks. Children could choose between characters such as pirates, devils, fortune tellers, witches, clowns, cats, bunny rabbits, and more.