How Halloween Started

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The last day of October has always been filled with a sort of spookily magical aura of alluring mystery and superstition. But not always quite like it is today. Actually, it wasn’t until about 80 years ago that the customs we now associate with Halloween came into fruition, though their roots can be followed back thousands of years.

Historians trace Halloween’s beginnings to a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The event was held on the eve of October 31st, lasting until November 1st, which is the date of their new year, and signified the need to stock up on food items in preparation for the winter months. They thought that this night was a time when the dead were among the living, so they dressed in scary animal costumes to ward off the evil spirits, danced around a special fire, told stories, practiced divination – the whole shebang.

During the 8th century, Catholicism began to make its way into Ireland and Samhain became integrated with the religious celebrations of All-Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. These holidays take place November 1st and 2nd, and are meant for honoring saints and those who have recently passed. All Saints’ Day is also known as Hallowmas, All Hallows, and Hallowtide (so you can guess where the current name for October 31st stems from). And the whole dressing up thing didn’t disappear, as you may have guessed. It was believed that All Souls’ Day was the spirits’ last time to get revenge on their enemies, so the Christians did what anyone smart would do: they made masks and costumes to disguise themselves. (Pretty sneaky, guys.)

Trick-or-treating also has roots in these Catholic holidays. For All Saints’ Day, people would make special breads called soul cakes that the poor would go door to door collecting in return for prayers. Thus, trick-or-treating was created. But this act of collecting didn’t gain popularity in North America until fairly recently.

When America was first settled, many of its inhabitants were Puritans, and they weren’t too big on anything fantastical, so not a lot of autumnal celebrating was happening up in New England back in the day. Further south, however, people let loose with gatherings celebrating the harvest. They would tell fortunes, have bonfires, sing, dance – pretty much everything the Celts did sans dress up in animal hides.

In the second half of the 19th century, the demographics in North America shifted dramatically, as a flood of immigrants came into the country – millions of them Irish. The Irish stuck to tradition by going door to door begging for money and food on October 31st, thus trick-or-treating was successfully integrated into American culture, morphing into a ritual of handing out sweets. (Although some people still give out money…usually quarters. Please, please don’t be one of those people.) In the 1930s, the term “trick-or-treating” was officially used, marking the holiday’s growing popularity.

But trick-or-treating and dressing up aren’t the only traditions we’ve adopted. Think we came up with carving squash? Not so much. Across the pond, they were hollowing out turnips to serve as lanterns to honor the dead and scare off evil spirits long before coming to America. But there are no turnips in the new world, just something bigger and better: pumpkins.

So while what’s popular on Halloween changes every year with the introduction of original candy creations and new characters to impersonate, there’s something pretty magical in that our spooky festivities are rooted in traditions dating back nearly 4 thousand years.

About the Author:

” is the Gourmet Scribe at, one of the top suppliers of gift baskets in the nation, and currently resides in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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