When October 31st arrives each
year most of us are excited to
dress in a great Halloween costume
and set out to "trick-or-treat" or
go to a party. It is the costume
that thrills us the most. However,
this is a relatively recent practice.
In fact, so is going door to door
expecting to get candy treats.
Homemade Halloween costumes at
right from the 1890's.
History and Origins of Wearing Costumes
Historical records indicate the practice of wearing costumes was practiced by
early Christians in Western Europe during the 15th century. Called “guising,”
people living in English cities during the 1700’s would dress in homemade
costumes to parade and party for “All Saints” on November 1st and “All Souls
Day” on November 2nd, whereas no costumes were worn for Halloween on the
traditional day of October 31st.
The Celtic practice of celebrating Samhain on October 31st, the day when the
ghosts of the dead are believed to return to earth, has influenced the
development of Halloween. Heavily dependent on the success of their crops, they
had many rituals to improve fertility and stave off evil spirits. The Celtic
priests, also called Druids, would commemorate Samhain to ensure good crops
with massive bonfires and animals sacrificed to honor their gods. They
traditionally wore animal heads and skins as they danced around the fire to
beseech the Gods for protection from the cold winter and prosperity for the
In Ireland, Samhain was the day livestock would be herded from their summer
pastures to be butchered and stored to feed families during the long, cold
winter. It was also a day that people and livestock were ritually cleansed as they
walked between bonfires. The bones of butchered animals would be given back to
Wearing Costumes to Disguise Oneself
The practice of wearing costumes is believed to have evolved from the desire to
disguise oneself as protection from harmful spirits as the “door” to the
Otherworld opened to allow the souls of the dead to return to earth on October
The first recorded practice of wearing costumes on Halloween began in Scotland.
Poor Scottish adults and children in the 1890’s dressed in disguises while going
door to door in wealthier communities to beg for cakes, nuts, fruit and money. To
light their way, they carried lanterns made from turnips and wore improvised
costumes and masks, such as the one pictured below.
Handmade Halloween mask from 1900 Ireland.
The wearing of costumes for Halloween came to England and Ireland by 1900.
In the wealthy English towns of Thorntonhill and South Lanarkshire boys from
poor families began to dress in homemade costumes and begged for handouts on
Interestingly, the threat of a “trick” if a treat is not given did not begin until
Halloween came to North America. Children in Scotland, Ireland and England
often memorized a humorous poem or song before donning a homemade costume
and setting out to ask for treats in wealthier neighborhoods. Children tell a poem, dance, sing or play a card trick in exchange for the “treat.”
The earliest Halloween costume
styles reflected its Gothic pagan
origins of honoring the dead and
helping the souls of sinners rise
to heaven. They were made with
items found around the home.
Make-up was frequently used to
disguise the individual as well as
create unique guises.
Above: Kids Wear Costumes in 1920's America.
In 1900, as shown below, American kids made costumes from things they found
around their home.
Halloween Costumes Come To America
Dressing in costumes for Halloween was not recorded in North America until
1911, when a newspaper reported children going door-to-door while wearing
Halloween costumes in Kingston, Ontario.
Today, celebrating the Halloween in America has come full circle. It is common
for adults to dress in Halloween costumes that reflect death and the dying and
parade around cemetery graves stones on Halloween night. Cemetery owners
charge fees for this privilege.
Below, people wear costumes as they parade through cemeteries on Halloween.
As the custom of celebrating Halloween in the United States became popular
enterprising companies began making costumes. Mass production of various
Halloween costume designs became big business 1930. It became popular to wear
scary Halloween costumes such as witches, vampires, werewolves, zombies and
Today, the trend is moving back to the ghouls and
Gothic witches of an earlier time.
Gothic Witch Costume
(We sell these in our
Origin of Halloween
Halloween was not always a day of costumes, fearless fun and candy galore.
Centuries ago Halloween, formerly called All Hallows' Eve, comes from the Celtic
feast of Samhain, which marked the end of summer.
In Northern Europe, the arrival of November meant the arrival of dreary, dark,
barren, cold, wet days. With dark times ahead, fire and protection were needed
on October 31st. With this in mind the rural folks lit huge bonfires on hilltops to
frighten away evil spirits and held rites and sacrifices to please the gods and
demons and all the things beyond their control. Natives hung Cherokee jewelry from trees for decoration and protection.
For months to come they had nothing but time and fear on their hands, and soon
lots of sinister Halloween ceremonies sprung up, such as mock funerals, mask
wearing, Halloween costumes, games, and sacrifices.
Somewhere along the line, October 31, or Halloween, became the only day of the
year in which it was believed the devil could be invoked for help in finding out
about future marriages, health, deaths, crops, and what was to happen in the new
Halloween in England and Ireland
Throughout ancient Britain and Ireland there were Halloween costumes worn,
games played and rituals performed, mostly to find out who would marry whom.
On Halloween, one could hear young women chanting formulas as they went out and plowed the earth at midnight and sewed seed for the Spring crop.
Uneducated and superstitious, they believed if the woman looked over her
shoulder while planting the crop by the light of the moon, she might catch a
glimpse of the figure of her future husband.
Meanwhile back in people's houses Halloween activities were in full force. Coins
and apples were put in tubs of water and party goers dressed in costumes dunked
their heads into tubs to try to capture the objects with their teeth and of
course, they would wear scary hand sewn witch costumes.
Snatching a coin or an apple meant a happy New Year was in store. Out of all
these Halloween activities emerged "Mischief Night."
Halloween in America
In the last century, immigrants, especially the Irish, brought their
mischief-making customs to the United States. On Halloween boys and young men
wearing dark Halloween costumes broke windows and overturned outhouses.
Then, perhaps to control the damage, someone started the Halloween custome of
"trick or treat" for the little kids. However, if a trick was to be played, the boy
was told to beware of the jack-o'-lanterns or hollowed out pumpkins with sharp
teeth and an eerie glow. They were watching you.
The day after Halloween, All Saints' Day, went to the other extreme in its
activities and rituals. It was time to repent for the mischief and trickery one
caused and to remember the holy people who came before you.
Halloween has become a symbol of fun, lots of candy and the wearing of zombie,
vampire, dracula, pirate, princess and witch costumes. By far the biggest change in contemporary American entertainment habits is that people now spend more on Halloween costumes than they do on other "holidays," apart from Christmas. People buy tubes of fake blood, plastic pumpkins, and ghoulish Halloween costumes, such as zombie costumes, witch costumes, skeleton costumes, vampire costumes and monster costumes. Of coarse, lots of Halloween decorations are displayed in front yards.
Last Halloween I saw a child say, "Mommy, look! A circle of witches are just
standing in front of Amy's house!"
The children are straining against their seatbelts in excitement as they drive
past the most fancy Halloween decorated homes in the neighborhood. Ten years
ago, all you would see was a pumpkin sitting on the porch. Now we see scary
critters in Halloween costumes dangling from ropes tied to a roof and dummies in
Halloween witch costumes sitting on lawns with a lighted cauldron next to her.
"Over there! A giant spider web! Wow!" Children yell out.
Or they say, "Look, they've got a graveyard in their yard!"
What is interesting about the Halloween phenomenon is that today its celebration is not about death, or life, or fall. It is a completely content-free, dark-caped day that kids and adults can put on whatever Halloween costume they want and pretend they are someone or something else.
Historically, Halloween had been a low-grade thrill experienced chiefly by the very young. Halloween costumes were handmade from the contents of our dress-up trunks and children marched out into the dusk to petition the neighbors for candy apples and sweets.
Today, Halloween is celebrated by more adults than children. Young adults wear Halloween costumes and rush out to a friend’s Halloween party. They are dressed in the most sought after Halloween costume. When they arrive, they are greeted by the scariest of beings. The house is dark and has Halloween decorations to make it look like you are entering a dark cave. There are Frankenstein windsocks, decorative skulls and many dummies dressed in Halloween costumes. The invited guests receive spider rings, witch hats and lots of Halloween candy. They play games and dance and have a great escape from the rigors and demands of our new society.
Instead of just the children wearing Halloween costumes adults of all ages can
feel comfortable wearing a funny or scary Halloween costume to disguise or transform themselves into something else for a day.
One of the Most Important Aspects of Halloween is Wearing
a Costume to Become Someone or Something Else
By The 1930's Kids Begin
Wearing Mass Produced