From the British Isles to America

Most of the excesses of Christian persecution of women accused of witchcraft that we discussed in Part 3 had faded away by the early decades of the nineteenth century. Halloween celebrations began to focus once again on winning the goodwill of the wandering spirits who showed up on Halloween. Particularly in Scotland and Ireland, several Halloween party games focused on divining the future of young women – mostly focused on identifying their future husbands.

A matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night in the belief that true love would appear to the diner who found it. In Scotland, unmarried young women trying to choose among several possible suitors would name a hazelnut for each one, then toss them all into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping would identify the girl’s future husband. (We have no idea what it would mean if more than one burned away.)

Another story suggested that, if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on a Halloween night, she would dream about her future husband.

Eligible ladies might toss apple-peels over their shoulders with the hope that they would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husband’s initials. They would hold candles as they stood in front of mirrors in a darkened room, staring intently over the reflection of their shoulders in the hope that they would see their husband’s faces.

There were competitive games as well. The first young woman to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt or to successfully secure an apple that was bobbing in water would be the first to marry.

Apple bobbing was a popular Halloween game. The first young woman to successfully secure an apple would be the first one down the aisle.

The communal bonfires, violent class-based confrontations and anti-Catholic rhetoric that had been associated with Guy Fawkes Night (see Part 3) had gradually toned down by the early 19th century. Children would don masks to represent Fawkes and would roam the streets asking for “a penny for the Guy”, becoming a forerunner of the trick-or-treat tradition. 

Although there were some Halloween festivities in colonial America, such as telling ghost stories and various kinds of mischief-making, it was not celebrated in many parts of the country. This changed in 1847-1852 when the great Irish Potato Famine led to the starvation deaths of over one million of the Irish and the emigration of several million more to the US.

The Irish brought their Halloween traditions with them and Halloween trick-or-treating became immensely popular. As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, this originated with the Celtic custom of giving token bits of the harvest to spirits wandering outside the houses on the evening of Samhain in order to occupy them with something other than doing destructive things to the harvest or to homes.

The early masks donned by the children to celebrate Guy Fawkes day evolved and expanded into many diverse costumes. Since it was still widely believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world on Halloween, costumes were worn not to frighten their neighbors but rather to convince any ghosts they might encounter that they were fellow spirits.

To keep the ghosts away from their homes, people would place bowls of food on their doorsteps to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter.

Unfortunately the “tricking” part of trick-or-treating became more widely practiced after the First World War in the US, often devolving into vandalism, physical assaults and sporadic acts of violence.

A group of children stand with their Guy Fawkes effigy and a sign reading “Penny for the Guy” in Welsh.
Halloween costumes from approximately 1880

The anger and deprivation that was part of the Great Depression in the 1930’s made the problem much worse and led to a widespread adoption of an organized community-based trick-or-treating tradition with treats of candy provided generously to well behaved children – the modern equivalent of the Samhain wandering spirits. World War II, with sugar rationing and blackouts, largely put a temporary end to Halloween celebrations. With the end of the war, however, trick-or-treating by the so-called Baby Boomers in America returned for millions of children in the cities and suburbs. Unfortunately, the near total destruction of Europe meant that the resumption of Halloween celebrations there would be delayed for many years.


In our next installment, Modern Day Halloween, we will look at the continued evolution of Halloween celebration in America and its eventual globalization.