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earle3.gif (8410 bytes)Halloween:
New York's Upside-Down Holiday

David Earle, Stephanie Fike, and Michael Galkoski

earle2.jpg (21259 bytes)

History of the Feast

Halloween, an upside-down freak festival or a night of majestical power? A modern anti-festival associated with devils, demons, ghosts, and ghouls; or a mystical link to a Celtic past; or a Catholic Holiday?

It is probably that the modern Halloween (a word we first meet in the 17th Century) originated from an ancient Celtic harvest holiday called Samhain, meaning Summer's End. This festival is also known as Hallowanas, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Eve, Festival of the Dead, and the Third Festival of Harvest. This holiday of Samhain is closely associated with witches, and is celebrated by modern wiccans today.

Samhain was the Celtic New Year, in which the celebrating could not begin until sundown. Samhain was also known as the ’’ The Feast of the Living Dead’’, because it was believed that the dead would come back to life, eat and celebrate with the living. These two facts explain the reasoning for why Halloween is celebrated at night and why costumes of dead and other horrifying things are worn.

But Halloween is also connected to the celebration of  the Catholic feast of All Saints' Day. This holiday celebrated on the first of November is the honouring of all the saints, known and unknown. All Saints Day grew from very small roots. In the beginning, every saint was given a special dayon which to be honoured. However, this soon became problematic as the number of saints grew to be too many. In the late fourth century, the church selected a day to honour only martyrs and St. John the Baptist. As time went on, others were gradually added and the celebration took place the Friday a week before Easter. In 609, Pope Boniface IV ordered an anniversary to celebrate the martyrs and Blessed Virgin after he consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to them. This ignited an idea for Gregory III and in 800, a chapel in St. Peter’s was consecrated to All Saints and the anniversary was set for 1 November. There was still a problem with this, only certain people in the church could celebrate the holiday until in 837, Gregory IV opened the celebration to the entire church, maintaining the date of 1 November.

At some stage the Catholic Feast of All Saints got mixed up with older festivals, including Samhain.  Sometimes people like to see this as the survival of "pagan traditions", but we should remember that as it expanded the Catholic Church deliberately allowed the incorporation of older rituals. (See  Pope St. Gregory I's Letter to Mellitus which encouraged the missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons to allow some leeway for pagan customs.)

All the common traditions of today Halloween can be attributed to the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain, and it seems to have been brought to the United States in the 1840s by Irish immigrants. Trick or treating was done by everyone, and ironically it focused more on the adults than the children. Instead of the children going from door to door, the adults would go from house to house receiving treats, which was usually liquor, and they would go caroling along in bands,  The fun game of bobbing for apples was a marriage tradition, in which who ever got the apple would be married later that year. In Scotland and Ireland, the idea of the Jack-O-lantern was used to protect the house from evil spirits which could harm the family.  In modern Britain, where the festival is much less of an event than in the US, Lanterns are made with swedes (what Americans call rutabagas) rather than pumpkins.

Halloween  in New York Today

earle1.jpg (20114 bytes)Today Halloween has developed into a festival of costumes, drinking, and the celebration of human spirit. One of the best places that the Halloween tradition can be seen is in the Village Halloween Parade, which takes place yearly on Halloween on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village N.Y. In this celebration, crowds of men and women dressed in extravagant robes march down 6th Avenue in celebration of life. Men dressing as women and women dressing as men is a common practice in this "upside down" festival.

Originally a gay event, the Village Halloween Parade has been celebrated for about twenty four years. Today it draws all aspects of people looking to celebrate the Halloween tradition. It has been televised for the past couple of years on New York 1. The size of the parade is what has changed the most. From about 150 people participating in the parade the first year, it has grown to over a million and a half people participating today.

Although the costumes are still inspired by a gay aesthetic, the streets these days can be a less than gay-friendly environment, with a number of gay bashings each year.   The Halloween parade offers people a chance to come and celebrate the holiday and be anything they want to be. Though the parade has changed throughout the years, it is a more diverse celebration which has grown from its gay origin.

Other "Upside Down" Holidays

New York's Halloween then, is a modern gay adapation of an 19th century Irish immigrant holiday.  What gives it a link to the middle ages is the link with Samhain and with the festival of All Saints.  The holiday is also, however, a manifestation of another medieval tradition - the "turning the world upside down" tradition, in which the poor and social powerless (peasants, children, women, or as in modern New York, gays) took over a day and made it their own.

Feast of Fools

A Medieval holiday celebrated on the 1st of January. The Feast of Fools has no connection with April Fools Day. This "upside down" holiday involved clergy and serious townspeople dressing in costumes and masks, while the state, and the superiors who ran the state, were mocked. Most of the very influential people of this time did not take part in this celebration because it exposed the obvious distinction of power between rich and poor.

The celebration of the feast, eventually died out during the periods of the Enlightenment and Reformation. The celebration was basically an excuse to have a great time and act unusual.  Sound familiar?

Mardi Gras

Celebrated on the day before Lent begins, was the last hurrah for Christians to reverse roles and enjoy life. Mardi Gras (French  for "Fat Tuesday")  was a feast of food, drink, and human life. In Latin countries it is often known as "Carnival" (meaning "farewell to meat").  Much of what it is today.  Mardi Gras was brought to the United States in 1682, when New Orleans was claimed in name of King Louis XIV. Similar to the tradition of "upside down" festivals people dress in "weird" outfits and celebrate the holiday. Marti Gras is different than other festivals in that it is celebrated for a period longer than one day. Interestingly in both modern New Orleans, and in Brazil it is also a time when sexual norms are ignored.

The Day of the Dead

Celebrated. especially in Mexico, on November 1st and 2nd, the Day of the Dead was a festival for children and the deceased. Families of the deceased would visit the graves of their families and put flowers, pictures, food, and death objects on the graves. They would also put these objects around the house and around the pictures of the dead. This festival is still celebrated today.


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