Halloween's unique tradition 2
The dead are commemorated on All Saints' Day. GEORG HOCHMUTH/APA/picturedesk.com/picture alliance

The origins of Halloween

Halloween is not an ancient Celtic custom, nor was it invented by the American candy industry. DW explores the unique history of this spooky holiday.
Silke Wünsch, Deutsche Welle | Oct 31 2022

The streets come alive on the evening of October 31: Halloween. Dressed in spooky or comical costumes, kids walk up and down the streets, ringing doorbells and saying the magic words: "trick or treat." For those too old to go door to door collecting candy, Halloween parties are the order of the day.

Europeans tend to think that Halloween, which was shaped into its current form in the USA, is a purely commercial holiday, like Valentines day, which was largely poplarized by the Hallmark card company and has generated a spending spree, with flowers, jewelry and other gifts bought for loved ones on February 14th. The Halloween industry never seems to stop churning out plastic pumpkins and packaged costumes that are sold throughout the world.


A custom, not an event

But behind the commercialism lies an actual custom that goes back centuries, although it does not originate in Celtic nations, as some might think. Celtic pagans celebrated Samhain, a Thanksgiving-like festival to mark the beginning of winter, which starts the evening of October 31. Meanwhile, the church, which dominated European culture in medieval times, celebrated All Saints' Day on November 1.

Agony: The Last Judgement in art
Agony: The Last Judgement in art. Image: Pascal Deloche/Godong/picture alliance

Halloween is derived from "All Hallows Eve" — the evening before All Saints' Day, when the dead are commemorated and prayers are said for them. According to Christian views, they were waiting for the Last Judgement. In early Christianity, people believed that this day would come soon, but it didn't.

"Then people began to ask themselves 'what about the souls, what are they doing?" said Dagmar Hänel, a Bonn-based cultural anthropologist. Out of this, the idea of purgatory was born — a stopover between death and eternity where people begin to work off their sins and cleanse themselves. And there was a connection between the living and the souls in the hereafter.

"It is a belief found in all religions: We can influence the afterworld and vice-versa, so we pray the rosary, do good deeds and give alms — apparently that was believed to have a direct effect on the poor souls in purgatory," Hänel told DW.

In the Middle Ages, on the eve of All Saints', people went from door to door to ask for alms for the poor. In some rural regions in Germany, the custom is still practiced — bachelors go from village to village, praying, singing, blessing people and soliciting money. In the United States, the soliciting has become child's play and is known as "trick or treating."


A custom disappears from Europe

As the influence of the Enlightenment on religion grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, the church became increasingly skeptical of old customs, and even banned them, Hänel said, adding that in the course of industrialization, denser social networks developed, so people did not need to collect as much for the poor.

When German statesman Otto von Bismarck's social legislation was implemented in the country in the 19th century, that need for alms disappeared. The state became responsible for providing for the poor. That may be why the custom died out.


'Transatlantic return'

But the custom was not quite dead everywhere. Irish immigrants took Halloween to the USAin the 19th century. Halloween was mainly celebrated in neighborhoods in large US cities where Irish immigrants lived, according to Lars Winterberg, an anthropologist at the University of Bonn.

Pumpkins have become a symbol of Halloween
Pumpkins have become a symbol of Halloween. Image: Alexander Limbach/Zoonar/picture alliance

"Integration rarely served as a one-way street," Winterberg told DW. "In fact, the immigrant culture always merges with that of the host society." That's how the Halloween tradition spread across the USA. First, it was more or less a holiday for kids, and later, the adults took part with costume parties and decorations. 

During World War II and after, the celebration returned to Europe when, for example, US soldiers stationed in Germany celebrated Halloween. However, it didn't exactly catch on with Germans at the time. The celebration became more interesting when it spilled over into European culture through films and TV series. 

John Carpenter's 1978 horror movie "Halloween" definitely stirred up enthusiasm for the celebration. It blended a mix of Halloweenish elements, from zombies, demons and witches, to vampires, ghosts and children's games. Ironically, Halloween is now celebrated the American way even in Ireland.

A scene from the 1978 film 'Halloween'
A scene from the 1978 film 'Halloween'. Image: Imago

A substitute for Carnival?

Germany has long been gripped by Halloween fever, too. Both real and plastic pumpkins are displayed in store windows, and many bars host Halloween parties on and around October 31. The main Halloween fans are, of course, younger people and kids.

When the Halloween hype started gaining momentum in Germany back in the 1990s, it seemed the country's well-established carnival industry was actually trying to force Halloween celebrations on Germans.

In 1991, Carnival's famous Rose Monday parades were canceled due to the Gulf War, University of Würzburg ethnologist Jörg Fuchs recalls. The cancelations were a disaster for the carnival industry, which lost millions in business. Fuchs theorizes that since people also dress up in costumes during Germany's carnival celebrations, organizers "looked for another festival that could be established in the course of a year," which led to the popularity of Halloween, Fuchs says. 

Yet many older Germans still prefer to save their costumes only for Carnival. And anyway, Germany's carnival festvities start just a little over a week after Halloween, on November 11. Carnival in Germany lasts until Ash Wednesday of 2023. It, too, is based on an old Christian custom.

This article was originally written in German as an updated version of an article from October 31, 2019.