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The History of Halloween


Halloween is a popular holiday that takes place on October 31. In the United States and Canada, children dress in costumes and go trick-or-treating. Many people carve jack-o'-lanterns out of pumpkins. Halloween parties for children feature fortunetelling, mock haunted houses, scary stories, and games, such as bobbing for apples. People decorate their houses and yards with images of ghosts, skeletons, witches, black cats, bats, and other symbols of Halloween. Many communities across the United States also hold parades and other celebrations for Halloween.

Halloween developed from an ancient pagan festival celebrated by Celtic people over 2,000 years ago in the area that is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northwestern France. The festival was called Samhain (pronounced SOW ehn), which means "summer's end." The festival marked the beginning of the dark winter season and was celebrated around November 1. In the 800's, the Christian church established a new holiday, All Saints' Day, on this date. All Saints' Day was also called All Hallows'. Hallow means saint, or one who is holy. The evening before All Hallows' was known as All Hallows' Eve, or as it came to be abbreviated, All Hallow e'en. This name was eventually shortened to Halloween.

Halloween customs and symbols

Trick-or-treating. It was once common for people to leave food out on a table as a treat for spirits believed to be about on Halloween. In England, people went house-to-house souling—that is, asking for small breads called soul cakes in exchange for prayers. In some areas of the United Kingdom and Ireland, people went mumming (parading in masks) on many holidays, including Halloween. Groups of masked adults would go door-to-door asking for food and drink in return for a performance or song. Dressing in costume and asking for food or money was done in England on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5).

Today, trick-or-treating is the main Halloween activity for children in the United States and Canada. Young people wear costumes and go from door to door saying "trick or treat!" Costumes range from simple homemade disguises to elaborate store-bought likenesses of characters from cartoons, motion pictures, and television. Costumes of ghosts, witches, devils, and other mysterious creatures are also popular. The neighbors, to avoid having tricks played on them, give the children candy and other treats. Children carry bags or plastic buckets to collect the candy. Trick-or-treating usually occurs late in the day or after dark on Halloween. Homeowners turn on their porch lights as a sign that treats are available.

Since 1950, some children have gone trick-or-treating for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. They collect money for the agency in official orange-and-black cartons to aid children throughout the world.

Certain measures can help prevent accidents while trick-or-treating. A child can wear a light-colored costume or one with reflecting tape sewn on so they can be easily seen by drivers. The costume should be made of a material that does not burn easily. Because masks can block vision, many parents of small children use face makeup instead. Children should visit only homes in their own neighborhood. Younger trick-or-treaters should be accompanied by an adult.

Costumes. Adults sometimes wore costumes when they begged house-to-house for a Halloween feast. In County Cork, Ireland, a man wearing a white robe and holding a wooden horse's head led the group. In parts of Scotland, costumed beggars out on Halloween were known as skeklets. In Wales, boys dressed as girls and girls dressed as boys to go house-to-house singing Halloween rhymes.

Halloween costumes were popularized in the United States by adults in the late 1800's. By the early 1900's, however, Halloween costumes were worn mainly by children. Some of the first children's costumes were fairies, Gypsies, and burglars. In the 1950's, factory-made costumes of popular figures from movies and television appeared. Store-bought costumes have since become popular among both children and adults.

Jack-o'-lanterns are hollowed-out pumpkins with a face cut into one side. Most jack-o'-lanterns contain a candle or some other light. People in Scotland and Ireland once carved out large beets or turnips to use as lanterns on Halloween. After this custom reached America, pumpkins began to be used. The jack-o'-lantern originally represented spirits present in the dark, or souls released from Christian purgatory.


According to an Irish legend, jack-o'-lanterns were named for a character named Jack, who could not enter heaven because he was a miserly, bad-tempered man. He could not enter hell either, because he had tricked the devil several times. As a result, Jack had to walk the earth forever with only a coal from hell to light his lantern.

Fortunetelling methods that developed in Europe hundreds of years ago became an important part of Halloween rituals and celebrations. In Ireland, objects, such as a coin, a ring, and a thimble, were baked into a cake or other food. It was believed that the person who found the coin would become wealthy. Whoever found the ring would marry soon, but the person who got the thimble would never get married.

Halloween magic is also associated with foods, such as apples and nuts. In one fortunetelling game, a young woman would peel an apple in one long paring and throw it over her shoulder. People believed it would land in the shape of the initial of the man the woman would marry. Halloween's connection with apples and nuts is ancient, and Halloween was sometimes referred to as Nutcrack Night or Snap Apple Night. Today, some people use fortunetelling techniques, such as tarot cards or palm reading, to predict the future on Halloween.

Mischief Night. The night before Halloween is known by a number of names, including Mischief Night and Devil's Night. This is a night when young people play tricks on their neighbors, such as decorating trees with tissue paper or soaping windows. But through the years, Mischief Night pranks, which had usually been harmless, sometimes became rowdy and destructive. As a result, many communities now discourage Mischief Night activities.

Halloween symbols. In the 1500's and 1600's, people in Europe believed that the devil made witches do evil deeds. Over the centuries, people came to imagine that witches—and sometimes their animal companions, often black cats—rode through the night sky on Halloween. Throughout the ages, superstitious folk thought that fairies and ghosts could be asked for help casting spells or seeing into the future on Halloween. These supernatural creatures were not always friendly, and people sometimes carried turnip lanterns carved with grotesque faces to keep them away. In Scotland, people lit huge bonfires on hillsides to drive away evil spirits. For centuries in Europe, people remembered the dead at All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (November 2) with bonfires. Although bonfires are less common on Halloween today, people still mark the night with candles burning in jack-o'-lanterns. In addition, although most people do not believe in ghosts or witches, these supernatural beings remain symbols of Halloween.

Halloween around the world

For centuries, Halloween was marked throughout much of the United Kingdom and Ireland as a family celebration. People ate traditional foods including cabbages, apples, potatoes, nuts, and oats. Games, fortunetelling, disguises, and tricks are all part of Halloween celebrations in much of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The American custom of trick-or-treating has also become popular in many areas. In the United Kingdom, children ask, "Anything for Halloween?" rather than demand, "trick or treat!" Fireworks are a part of many Halloween celebrations in Ireland and Canada.

In many countries in Europe, people visit the graves of loved ones on All Saints' or All Souls' Day. Recently, however, American Halloween traditions, such as trick-or-treating, are now practiced alongside this custom. Halloween parties for adults have also become popular in many European cities. American-style Halloween customs are also appearing in Australia and New Zealand. Many nightclubs and hotels in some large Asian cities use Halloween parties to entertain foreign tourists.

American-style Halloween celebrations are not welcomed everywhere, however. For example, Halloween is often regarded with suspicion in China. In Mexico, Dia de los muertos (Day of the dead) is usually celebrated in November with special foods and visits to family gravesites. It is often mistaken for Mexican Halloween. Actually, the celebration is a unique blend of ancient Native American beliefs and Spanish Catholic traditions. Some people in other countries, including Italy and Poland, view Halloween as an American import that has nothing to do with their own culture, and urge children to celebrate their native holidays.


Samhain. Scholars know little about ancient Celtic religious rituals, festivals, and celebrations. Many believe the festival of Samhain to be the beginning of the Celtic year. At Samhain, farmers brought livestock in from summer pastures, and people gathered to build shelter for winter. During this time of reunion, new laws were made, stories were told, and they celebrated the season with bonfires and feasting. The festival also had religious significance, and people burned fruits, vegetables, grain, and possibly animals as offerings to the gods.

In ancient Celtic stories, Samhain was a magical time of transition when important battles were fought and fairies cast spells. It was a time when the barriers between the natural world and the supernatural were broken. The Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living at this time. During Samhain, the living could visit with the dead, who they believed held secrets of the future. Scholars believe that Halloween's association with ghosts, food, and fortunetelling began with these pagan customs more than 2,000 years ago.

All Saints' and All Souls' Day. Many of the customs of the pagan Celts survived even after the people became Christians. In the 800's, the church established All Saints' Day on November 1. About two hundred years later, it added All Souls' Day on November 2. This day was set aside for people to pray for friends and family who had died. People made many of the old pagan customs part of this Christian holy day. Some people put out food for their ancestors, or they left a lantern burning in the window so that ghosts could find their way home for the night.

Through the years, various regions of Europe developed their own Halloween customs. In Wales, for example, each person put a white stone near the Halloween fire at night and then checked in the morning to see whether the stone was still there. If it was, the person would live another year.

Halloween in the United States. Many early American settlers came from England, and they brought various beliefs about ghosts and witches with them. In the 1800's, many immigrants from Ireland and Scotland arrived in the United States and introduced their Halloween traditions. Other groups added their own cultural influences to Halloween customs. German immigrants brought a vivid witchcraft lore, and Haitian and African peoples brought their native voodoo beliefs about black cats, fire, and witchcraft.

By the end of the 1800's, the United States had developed a variety of regional Halloween customs. In rural New Hampshire, for example, barn dances were a Halloween tradition. In New York City, Halloween parades and firecrackers were common aspects of the celebration. In the mountain regions of North Carolina, it was said that Halloween was a time when people could hear the future whispered in the wind. In Louisiana, it was time to cook a midnight dumb supper (a meal eaten without speaking) and watch for a ghost to join the table.

In the 1900's, Halloween became a celebration for children more than adults. In the early 1900's, towns and cities began hosting large community Halloween celebrations, parades, and parties. Trick-or-treating became widespread during the 1940's and 1950's.

By the late 1900's, Halloween had become one of the most profitable holidays for American business. In the weeks before Halloween, stores sell decorations, costumes, masks, candy, and cards. Many people decorate their houses with jack-o'-lanterns, cornstalks, fake cobwebs, tombstones, and other Halloween symbols.

Halloween celebrations among adults have also become increasingly popular. Many adults wear a costume to work on Halloween. Others attend private costume parties or Halloween events held at nightclubs, hotels, or restaurants. New York City and other cities across the United States hold extravagant Halloween costume parades in which thousands of people participate. Many cities provide Halloween entertainments for families at parks, zoos, and amusement parks. Many private and civic organizations create mock haunted houses for entertainment and to raise money for charity.


• Lesley P. Bannatyne, B.A., Author, Halloween, An American Holiday, An American History andA Halloween How-To: Costumes, Parties, Decorations and Destinations.

How to cite this article:
To cite this article, World Book recommends the following format:
Bannatyne, Lesley P. "Halloween." World Book Online Reference Center. 2004. World Book, Inc. 9 September. 2004.