Things That Say ‘Boo’: The History of Halloween Crafts
Fill the bowls with candy. Cover the house in fake cobwebs. Find your scariest costume. Halloween is here!
The spookiest of nights has been a time-honored tradition for many families — some even counting down the days with more excitement than Santa’s arrival might bring. While today’s Halloween is filled with fog machines, technologically-advanced costumes and strobe lights, it wasn’t always that way. The history of Halloween truly shows us how this sweet-filled holiday has transformed over the years.
But it isn’t just in the type of candies and costumes that we can see a difference in Halloween traditions. Jack o’ lanterns, bed sheet ghosts and other Halloween arts and crafts have changed over the years. Follow us on our journey back in time to see how Halloween has transformed.
Dia de los Muertos
In early history, Halloween looked very different from what we know today. Historians believe the celebration of Halloween originated in Central America, when Spanish settlers witnessed natives participating in ceremonies for Dia de los Muertos, or what we know today as Day of the Dead.
To those native groups, death wasn’t the end, but rather, it was the beginning of a journey into the afterlife. Many of the celebrations were held to help deceased family members start that journey or to communicate with their spirits.
Skulls, of various sizes and materials, were often used as part of the various ceremonies, and many of them were put on display. Wooden skulls were worn during the celebrations, and candy skulls with the deceased person’s name inscribed on them were eaten in their honor — a practice which made many of the Spaniards feel a little uncomfortable. To many of the Catholic-practicing Spanish settlers, the celebrations were considered sacrilegious.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day
In an attempt to help ease the natives into converting to Catholicism, Dia de los Muertos was morphed into the Catholic holiday known as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which are celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. While the celebrations regarding the Catholic holiday vary, it is often used as a time to honor those who are regarded as saints in the Catholic Church, or those who have died and are still in purgatory.
Sometimes referred to as “Hallowmas,” the early traditions of Halloween included going around to gather soul cakes that were prepared in memory of the dead. The cakes were often given to children and to the poor. “Soulers” were singers who went through the streets, singing a monotone and toneless song that would indicate it was time to bring out the soul cakes.
All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day, was a night full of pranks. Children bobbed for apples, told fortunes based on how the chestnuts roasted over the fire and threw apple skins over their shoulders to help predict who would become their future spouse.
The Modern Dia de los Muertos
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is still widely celebrated in Mexico and other surrounding countries. While some of the traditions have changed over the years, the holiday remains a crucial part of the culture.
Many believe that on October 31st, Heaven opens its gates to let the souls of deceased children visit with their families. On November 1st, the spirits of deceased adults join in the celebrations. Many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans build altars in their homes where they display photos of their deceased loved ones, light candles and hang other mementos.
Food is also left on the altar for the spirits, including candy and sweets for the children, as well as cigarettes, alcohol and other items for the adults. Before the end of the two-day celebration, many families move to the cemeteries to hang out by the gravesites of people they love. The same tokens are often placed at the graves, and visitors will sit or play around their deceased family members’ gravesites for most of that last day.
Dia de los Muertos Crafts and Costumes
Sugar skulls are one of the most popular aspects in the history of Halloween crafts. But don’t expect to find them in just one form — they come in many colorful designs and tasty options. There are a variety of other Dia de los Muertos crafts and activities as well:
- Sugar skull piñatas. Add a little extra sweetness to your Halloween craft ideas with these colorful, skull-shaped piñatas. Many come donning hats, showing off bright and flowing feathers, and are covered in the beautiful colors seen throughout the celebrations.
- Dia de los Muertos face paint. A colorful, face-painting project can be a lot of fun and adds a creative touch to the otherwise run-of-the-mill, store-bought Halloween costumes. Kits make it easy to pull off the ghoulish look— or you can use your own face paints to try to create an original design. The white contrasting face against the darkened eyes and nose, as well as bright cheeks and lips, create great costumes for Dia de los Muertos.
- Homemade shrines. Shrines made to celebrate Day of the Dead are a great addition to your Halloween arts and crafts traditions. Shrines are often made during the celebrations to honor dead relatives, but they also can be made in honor of deceased pets. Use a photo of the person or animal you wish to honor, or draw a sketch, and paste it to an ornament or on the inside of a glass bottle. Then decorate the rest of the ornament or bottle with colorful paints, glitter, stickers and more. There’s no such thing as too much glitz here. Surround the shrine with candles and other treats in honor of your loved one and this time-honored holiday.
Folklore and the Jack o’ Lantern
Modern-day Halloween traditions incorporate many traits to make this holiday unique. While Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day certainly have a large influence on Halloween activities, so does folklore. Over the years, stories have helped shape the way we celebrate Halloween, even down to the history of Halloween crafts.
History of the Jack O’ Lantern
Why do we carve pumpkins each year? It turns out the tradition started in Europe and followed early settlers to America. Jack o’ lanterns have been known by many names over the years. In the 1800s, they also were called “foolish fire” or “Will O’ the Wisps,” known as the light seen eerily over the marshes of Ireland and other European countries.
The Story of Stingy Jack
Some believe the name for the jack o’ lantern came from the practice of calling a man “Jack” if you didn’t know his real name. So, if someone saw a man carrying a lantern in the distance, but didn’t know who it was, “man with the lantern” became “Jack o’ lantern.”
Others say the name originated with a tale. Irish folklore tells a story of Stingy Jack, a man who invited the Devil to have a drink. When he didn’t want to pay for the drink, Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to turn into a coin to pay for the brews. But instead of using the coin to buy the beverages, Stingy Jack kept it in his pocket with a silver cross, and made the Devil promise to leave him alone for an entire year.
Before the year was up, Stingy Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree for fruit. He then carved a cross into the tree, which kept the Devil trapped there until he swore not to bother Jack for 10 more years or to take his soul to Hell if he died. When Jack did die, he was not permitted into Heaven because of his tricks, but the Devil would not take him into Hell, either.
Instead, the Devil gave Jack a burning coal to carry with him for all eternity on the Earth. Jack placed it in a carved out turnip and roamed with his light. Early Europeans carried on the tradition by carving scary faces into turnips, potatoes and sometimes beets. They would leave them burning with a light at the window to keep Jack’s wandering spirit away.
The history of pumpkin carving began when the tradition of carving turnips and potatoes followed settlers to America. They discovered the pumpkin, a fruit native to the United States, made a great jack o’ lantern.
Why We Dress up in Costumes
Long before Batman or Cinderella costumes popped up on store shelves, dressing up was a deep tradition surrounding Halloween — especially when it came to the history of Halloween crafts. Instead of store-bought costumes, though, many families used what they had on hand to prepare something.
Spending Halloween as a night filled with pranks began in the 1800s, but it doesn’t appear modern trick-or-treating came about until the 1930s. Halloween costumes, however, can be seen in a variety of traditions throughout history:
- The traditions of Samhain and mumming. The Celtic tradition of Samhain is thought to be the origin of costume wearing. It was believed that during Samhain, or the transition between the seasons of summer and winter, spirits were released from the Underworld. People disguised themselves in costumes to avoid any evil spirits.
Then, in the 16th century, many Europeans practiced “mumming,” or the tradition of going door-to-door for food. In some countries, children wore masks or darkened their faces to disguise themselves, and they threatened mischief if they weren’t given anything.
- To honor the saints. Some Christian congregations honored the saints by carrying statues or replicas of the beloved saints through the streets during parades of All Saints’ Day celebrations. If a congregation didn’t have the resources to have replicas made, members of the church often dressed up as these honored saints.
- Hiding from the spirits. Some believed All Hallows Eve was the last chance spirits had to get vengeance on those who had done them wrong. To hide from such spirits, people often dressed in costume to try to confuse them.
- Crafting costumes from materials on hand. Many people used materials from their homes to create costumes for their children when they headed out to Halloween parties or for trick-or-treating. It’s believed this practice started in the early 1900s.
Make up was often used to craft Halloween costumes, as were sheets, wigs and sometimes adult clothing that looked comical on small children. Costumes were primarily scary — portraying witches, goblins, wolves and other frightful creatures. It was believed the scary costumes would frighten spirits that might be out that night, so the children could travel safely from home to home while they collected goodies.
The idea of going to the store to buy a costume became more popular after the 1930s when Halloween began to be more commercialized.
The Transformation of the Halloween Mask
One of the original Halloween arts and crafts projects was the introduction of the mask. In many cases, the Halloween mask is the final transformation in becoming something or someone else. However, the mask has also had an iconic place throughout history:
- Masks around the world. Many civilizations used masks to portray the dead or another dimension. Ancient Egyptians used funeral and ritual masks to help the soul recognize its own body to return to it later. Masks were often used in Chinese traditions for funeral rituals and to ward off evil spirits. Even Indonesians used colorful masks that resembled animals to honor their ancestors and send messages to the spirits.
- Masks in early Halloween history. In addition to using masks to scare evil spirits, the wealthy started using masks in masquerade balls. Although they weren’t worn to scare away evil spirits, it did disguise the wealthy so they could partake in activities normally suited for the common people.
The masks were quite elaborate — often affixed with sequins, feathers, jewels and fine fabrics. They also were accompanied by fancy ball gowns and tuxedos, giving a sense of mystery and freedom to those who hid behind them.
- The modern mask. Today, masks range from simple cutouts made by children to silicone covers that help a person transform into a completely different being. Sometimes the costumes are of a cuddlier or kid-friendly nature, and other times they embrace the spookiness of Halloween arts and crafts with a gory or frightful demeanor.
Many masks have become popular because of music or movies, especially horror films where frightful characters are depicted. Even though the mask has changed over the years, though, the history of the mask keeps the tradition strong when it comes to Halloween celebrations.
How Crafts Influence Halloween
While Halloween traditions have been adapted as cultures and centuries mesh, the holiday is still a time of great creativity. The chance to transform — even for one night — sparks so many possibilities. Even though commercialized costumes are easily accessible, and pop culture continues to influence costume choices, originality is still popular during this holiday.
Pinterest and other platforms make it easy to not only come up with costume and craft ideas, but with creative and spooky snacks, party games and trinkets as well.
Get Your Creative Juices Flowing
Feeling inspired to try your hand at your own project? MakersKit makes it easy to find all the supplies and tools you’ll need to express your creative side. Search our complete project kits to see what MakersKit might inspire you to discover.