The Origins of Halloween

the origins of halloween

It’s no secret: America loves Halloween. Every year on October 31st, children all over the country take to the streets in costume and go door to door asking neighbors for candy. Homes are decorated with ghosts, headstones and Jack-O-Lanterns while people of all ages celebrate this holiday dedicated to all things spooky. But how did traditions like trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins and dressing in costume begin? Read on to find out!

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An Ancient Celebration

Halloween can trace its roots all the way back to the ancient Celts, who lived in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France approximately 2,000 years ago. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1, as this day marked the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest and the dark, cold winter season, which was associated with death. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year,  the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was blurred. This night–October 31–became known as Samhain, when it was believed the spirits of the dead walked the earth.

The Ancient Origins of Halloween

Painting by John Anster Fitzgerald

The Celts believed that these ghosts of the dead could cause trouble in the world of the living, and so gathered around huge, sacred bonfires to offer sacrifices to these spirits. During these ceremonies, the Celts often wore costumes made of animal heads and skins. Masks were worn to keep roaming spirits from recognizing the faces of the living and causing them trouble.

All Hallows Eve

By the 9th Century A.D., Christianity had spread throughout Celtic lands, where it blended with older Celtic traditions. In 1000 A.D., the Catholic Church declared November 2 to be All Souls’ Day in honor of the dead. This was also an effort to replace the festival of Samhain with a church-sanctioned holiday. Similarly to Samhain, however, All Souls’ Day was celebrated with large bonfires, parades, and dressing in costume. The holiday began to be called “All Hallowmas,” a Middle English word for All Saints’ Day. The night before All Hallowmas became known as All Hallows Eve and eventually as Halloween.

It was customary for Celts to place bowls of food and wine outside their homes on the night of the 31st to appease wandering spirits and keep them from entering. As time passed, the church replaced this practice with the distribution of pastries called “soul cakes”  to poor citizens on All Souls’ Day. Eventually, the collection of soul cakes from houses around the neighborhood was taken up by children. This practice, called “going souling,” is believed to be the origin for modern trick-or-treating!

More Trick Than Treat

A Halloween party group in the 1910s. From Getty Images

The rigid Protestant beliefs of the early colonists in New England made the celebration of Halloween nearly non-existent in North America in the early days. However, as the colonies grew and the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups mixed with those of Native Americans, a distinctly American form of Halloween began to emerge. Public events celebrating the harvest included what were known as “play parties” in which people gathered to dance, sing, and tell stories of the dead.

Such autumn festivities spread throughout the American colonies as time went on, but was not quite Halloween as we know it today until the late 19th century. A flood of Irish immigrants fleeing the Irish Potato Famine brought to North America many of the traditions inspired by their Celtic ancestors. These included early versions of trick-or-treating as well as the creation of Jack-O-Lanterns. Originally, turnips were used to make these skeleton-faced lanterns meant to ward off evil spirits; but in America, pumpkins were widely used. Fortune-telling and magic tricks also became popular. For example, young Irish women believed that on Halloween, they could connect with the divine and perform various tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors to reveal the name of their future husband. Tricks like these and other mischievous pranks became associated with Halloween night.

A Family-Friendly Holiday

Children trick-or-treating, 1950s. From Vintage Everyday

All the pranks and trickery on the evening of the 31st inspired a push for a more family-friendly holiday in the late 1800s. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both kids and adults became a more common way to celebrate the holiday; with neighborhood gatherings focused on games, food and costumes. Parents were encouraged by community leaders to take anything “frightening” out of Halloween celebrations. As a result, All Hallows Eve became decidedly less focused on death, religious belief and superstitions during this time. By the 1920s and 30s, Halloween had become a secular, community-focused holiday featuring city-wide parades and festivities.

Trick-or-treating was revived as a Halloween tradition during the 1950s, as it was an inexpensive way for the entire community to share in the Halloween celebration. It was said that families could prevent tricks being played on them by neighborhood children on Halloween night by giving them small treats. Thus, a new American tradition was born and quickly gained popularity across the entire country.

Today, Halloween is one of America’s most popular and widely-celebrated holidays. Seven out of ten people hand out candy to trick-or-treaters, and an average of $86/person is spent on candy, decorations, costumes. The holiday has come a long way from the celebration of Samhain by the anicent Celts!

We hope you have a safe and happy Halloween, and be sure to tell your friends about the origins of their Jack-O-Lanterns!

Source:, CNN






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