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How Halloween became an adult's holiday

Built in the Bay
(Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Halloween occupies a unique place in American holiday culture. Its name is less controversial than Christmas or Thanksgiving, nor does it hold the same familial connotations. It isn't as coated with colorful displays of patriotism as the Fourth of July and it isn't imbued with the same expectations as New Year's Eve.

Similarly, Halloween night implies a very different type of fun depending on your age. When you're a kid, it meant intense sugar highs and sprints around the neighborhood to collect all the candy you could. As everyone ages, their Halloween celebration takes on a very different life.

The history of Halloween, both ancient and more recent, tells the story of how the holiday has transformed over the years.

Ancient History

The history of Halloween, or All Hallow's Evening as it was called in the ancient Roman and Greek eras, was originally a celebration on Oct. 31. All Saint's Day is a Roman Catholic holiday traditionally celebrated on Nov. 1. Part of the traditional All Saint's Day celebrations involved lighting candles throughout graveyards to ward off evil spirits.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine)

The process of carving pumpkins is in itself an ancient tradition. Irish and Celtic societies in the middle ages celebrated the festival of Samhain (which loosely translates to 'summer's end' in Gaelic), which marked the end of summer and the start of the Celtic new year.

For protection from several evil spirits, the ancient Irish and Celtic people carved faces in pieces of produce, particularly radishes, beets and potatoes. They would light candles and place them within the cavities in the produce.

Martin Luther's Halloween Surprise

As the power of religious institutions like the Catholic Church expanded, All Hallow's Evening celebrations like the carvings of the Celts and the ancient Romans were pushed out for All Saint's Day celebrations.

All the more fitting than that, according to legend, scholar and priest Martin Luther went to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on Oct. 31, 1517. As the story goes, Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the church, starting what would eventually be known as the Protestant Reformation.

Luther's 95 these were quickly translated from Latin into German and widely distributed with the help of the newly minted printed press. When the church in Rome got wind of the revolutionary ideas stemming from Germany, they attempted to silence Martin Luther. The church declared him a heretic and cast him to death, any citizen could kill him with impunity. Luther was protected by Prince Fredrick and, as punishment, was ordered to translate the Bible into German, which took roughly ten years.

By the time of his death in 1547, Luther's ideas had successfully undermined the Catholic Church's grip on faith, initiating the Protestant Revolution.

Modern History and Modest Traditions

As Protestantism spread throughout the world, pagan All Hallow's Evening traditions slowly became more accepted. By the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the religious traditions of All Saint's Day coexisted peacefully with the more supposedly "heretical" beliefs.

In the late 1800s, America's influx of immigrants brought different interpretations of these two abutted holidays. Irish immigrants brought with them the predecessor to the modern trick-or-treat and dressing up in costume.

At the cusp of the 20th century, a cultural shift in Halloween celebrations shifted the holiday from its spooky traditions to a community-centered family affair.
(Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Between the 1920s and 1950s, the immigrant tradition of trick-or-treating gained more popularity in America.

By the late 1970s, Halloween in cities like San Francisco became a party for adults as well. In the Castro, there were many peaceful and exciting celebrations for adults throughout the 80s and 90s. Those celebrations, which were notoriously inspired, inclusive and extravagant were eventually canceled after a fatal tragedy in 2006.

Halloween, before COVID, had once again become a safe and inclusive environment in San Francisco with exciting celebrations at bars throughout the Castro.
(Peter Summers / Getty Images)

In most modern cities Halloween has become a healthy combination of childhood trick-or-treaters and a myriad of adult celebrations. Whether you're taking your kids trick or treating or costuming yourself, Americans have made modern Halloween into a barrage of enjoyment for kids and adults.

However you decide to celebrate All Hallow's Evening, All Saint's Day or Halloween, do so responsibly.

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