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This Day in History - 10.31.2011

Halloween's Rich History in America

By Candies Liu

October 31st, or Halloween, is known as a ghoulish and festive holiday filled with fun, candy, and interesting costumes.

Halloween has a rich tradition in American history, for before this holiday became a widespread national tradition based on consumerism, it was mostly celebrated in Maryland and southern colonies. Halloween was not a popular event in the Northeast because of the strict religious beliefs of the Protestants in colonial New England and the Quakers in the middle colonies. However, as those strict religions faded from power, and as various cultural groups, including Europeans and American Indians began to merge in America, October 31st gradually became a day of celebration, pranks, and story-telling.

The 1846 potato famine in Ireland also contributed largely to the popularization of Halloween as millions of Irish immigrants fled to America. The concept of “trick-or-treat” was adopted from Irish and English customs. However, “trick-or-treating” originally did not revolve around asking for candy, but for money and food. Today’s happy search for chocolate thus has roots in hard times, when folks were so hungry that they roamed the streets asking for handouts.

As the late 1800s approached, Americans were encouraged by community leaders and newspapers to keep Halloween a fun-filled and festive celebration rather than a scary, frightening one. This was an attempt to discourage acts of terror, vandalism, and violence within communities beset with the difficulties of the Gilded Age. Through these efforts, Halloween became known as a holiday for festivities, seasonal foods, games, and engaging with the community in a positive manner. But the old traditions linger, as some communities mark the night before Halloween with political acts of defiance; in the economic slump of the late 1970s, some cities erupted in riots.

In order to shift the earlier focus on pranks or “tricks” during this holiday, people encouraged each other to offer “treats” and began to distribute candy. This new tradition resonated so well with the people in America that Halloween has become the nation’s second largest commercial holiday.