Witch came first, the celebration of what is now America’s Halloween or Britain’s Guy Fawkes Night? Where did these Autumnal celebrations originate and why? Let’s take a look at these fun and fanciful traditions, steeped in history and celebrated on both sides of the pond that step on the dark side.

The tradition of Halloween may have originated among the Celtic people of Britain, Ireland and northern France. This celebration of the end of Summer and the start of Fall and Winter was known as Samhain (pronounced “sah win”). It was believed by many that this was the time of year when warmth and coldness mixed together and caused unrest among the dead; think witches, ghosts, and goblins. Folk would build huge bonfires and dress up in frightening garb, often animal skins, to ward off evil spirits. In the eighth century, to honor the saints, Pope Gregory III established Nov. 1 as All Saints Day also known as Hallowmas or All Hallows’ Day. Thus Oct. 31 became known as All Hallows Eve and now is commonly known as Halloween.

In northern colonial America, Halloween was not widely celebrated due to the strict Protestant faith of the time. However, it was more commonly observed in the southern colonies where Catholicism was generally accepted. Maryland was one of those colonies—the first to allow Catholics. These celebrations consisted of dancing and singing around bonfires, telling of scary tales and merrymaking. 

In the late 1800s carving pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns became popular. This evolved from the Irish immigrants who brought the tradition of carved turnips, potatoes and beets with them from Ireland as well as the tale of Stingy Jack. In one version of the tale, Jack asked the devil out for a drink and tricked the devil into becoming a coin with which Jack could pay the tab. Stingy as he was, he didn’t pay, kept the coin and carried a silver cross with him to prevent the devil from freeing himself from the coin. Jack played several other tricks on the devil before Jack finally died (Jack’s devil wasn’t the sharpest knife in the draw). Jack was not allowed into heaven or hell. The devil gave him a solitary lit coal to assist Jack in finding his own hell. Jack placed the coal in a hollowed out turnip and to this day continues to roam. We no longer use turnips as jack-o’-lanterns and have replaced them with the pumpkin.

About the time of World War II, Halloween took on its popularity. Trick-or-treating began and indeed included tricks. Unruly kids would play tricks such as egging houses, knocking over outhouses (even when someone was inside), placing firecrackers in mailboxes and unlatching gates or worse. This was not amusing to the folks on the receiving end of these pranksters’ tricks. Soon parents and town officials began to emphasize the “treat” portion of trick-or-treating. The sweet tooth took over and young folk began to ease up on the tricks in favor of treats. Games were encouraged and bobbing for apples was a favorite. Parties were organized at schools, town halls and in homes. Parades became popular and of course dressing up in all manner of costumes was encouraged.

A similar celebration to Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day began in England on Nov. 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was a co-conspirator planning on blowing up the Houses of Parliament. This became known as the Gunpowder Plot. A group of zealous Catholics, led by Robert Catesby (1572-1605) believed that King James I did not show tolerance for their faith. They imagined that if Parliament was destroyed, along with its members and the king that Catholic rule would once again reign in the land. King James I considered Catholicism a superstition and banished Catholic priests from England.

On Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes was discovered by the king’s men while he was in the cellar, carrying matches that he could have used to light the fuse where 36 barrels of gunpowder had been hidden. He was in charge of the cellar the plotters leased below the House of Lords chamber in which to hide their explosives and he went by the alias of John Johnson. It is believed the plotters were betrayed and thus Guy Fawkes was taken away to the dreaded Tower of London to be tortured. Other conspirators were killed while resisting arrest or later executed by hanging until near death followed by the gruesome spectacle of drawing and quartering. In January 1606 Fawkes escaped the drawing and quartering by jumping from the hangman’s platform resulting in death. A few months later, a day of thanksgiving was declared by King James I and thus Guy Fawkes Day began.

Celebrations of the thwarted Catholic plot, complete with bonfires and burning an effigy of the Catholic Pope abounded. The celebration even made its way to the American colonies where it was called Pope Day. Here, as in England, an effigy of the Pope was burned expressing the anti-Catholic mind set of the day. In America, this celebration died off in the 1800s but it continued in England and commonwealth countries such as Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Kitts and Nevis. After more than 400 years this thwarted plot is still widely celebrated.

Today, Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated with community fireworks recalling the explosives of the foiled plot from 1605. There are parades, the burning of straw effigies of Guy Fawkes in blazing bonfires, and of course as with every celebration an abundance of food and beverage. Despite the continuance of burning likenesses of Guy Fawkes, he is thought of today as more of a hero and less of a villain.

It’s been over 2,000 years since the beginning of the Halloween tradition and the celebration of Guy Fawkes lags behind at just over 400 years. These macabre celebrations have fallen in and out of favor over changing times but have managed to hold their appeal with young and old. Halloween is the second most celebrated commercial holiday in America next to Christmas and it’s becoming more popular overseas than Guy Fawkes Night. Be sure to stock plenty of treats for the goblins this Halloween lest your outhouse be overturned. Boo!

Barbara loves unearthing the history of all manner of things. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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Barbara enjoys history and is particularly interested in the history of Maryland.