The History of Halloween

Halloween graphic

Halloween - October 31st

Halloween is widely celebrated throughout the world under many names. The commonly accepted origin of the name Halloween is All Hallows Even (short for evening), the eventual abbreviation to Hallows Eve, then Hallowe'en and finally the name we know today as Halloween. Historically, a Halloween-type celebration was common, even essential, in many countries and folk traditions. It is believed that cultural traditions and customs overlapped and blended until, in modern times, many see this holiday simply as a time to dress up in an entertaining costume and gather candy and treats from friends and neighbors.

Historians commonly credit the origin of Halloween to have a root in ancient harvest festivals that also marked the turning of the year. Many ancient cultures believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was weakened on the night before the new year, and that ghosts of the dead could return to the land of the living. For both of these reasons, the night before the new year was a time to both celebrate the end of the harvest with feasting as well as a time to ward off any bad spirits and bad fortune. It is believed that costumes were worn and sacred bonfires were lit in an effort to ward off bad luck, evil spirits, and the coming winter darkness. We can see how these traditions evolved into the modern custom of dressing up in scary costumes and carrying lights as celebrants walk through the night with friends and family. While today we may choose to dress as a scary ghoul, ghost or goblin, it has become commonplace to simply dress up as anything other than yourself; it's not uncommon to see a fairy princess or ballerina walking with a cowboy, space alien, or the main character in a favorite movie.

With the expansion of the Roman Empire came a blending of cultural and religious traditions. It is generally accepted that the Romans also had beliefs regarding ancestral and troublesome spirits, and often paired seasonal celebrations with warding against ill luck and meddlesome ghosts. During these celebrations, the head of each household performed rituals to exorcise the spirits of the dead from their homes. These rites were traditionally performed privately in individual homes, while other ceremonies were performed publicly.

As time passed and the influence of Catholicism spread throughout the Roman Empire, further intertwining cultural traditions and rituals for remembering the dead, with an eventual official declaration of November 1st as "All Saints Day" and November 2nd as "All Souls Day". Thereafter, October 31st was considered a day of preparation for All Saints Day and All Souls Day. This period of holidays was typically observed by going to church and attending Mass ceremonies, giving rise to the name Hallow-Mas. Some observers also tended to the graves of lost loved ones and made offerings of various foods and lighted candles, and sometimes decorated gravestones with flowers, wreaths and garlands. The echoes of these customs can be seen in modern Halloween decorations.

In some European countries, a custom has been described where children and the poor would go door-to-door on Hallowmas and say prayers or sing hymns in return for cakes. This custom was thought to have been brought to the United States with English, Irish and Scottish immigrants, and is perhaps the origin of "trick-or-treating", where costumed children go from door to door asking their neighbors and friends for candy and treats with the question "Trick or Treat?" The "trick" is (usually) an idle threat to cause mischief for the homeowner if no treats are given.

Another well-known Halloween custom is the Jack O'Lantern, where faces and spooky images are carved on pumpkins and illuminated with candles. This custom is commonly believed to have descended from an Irish legend of Stingy Jack, who being denied both Heaven and Hell upon his demise, carried a glowing coal in a carved turnip to light his path. Those who wished to drive the spirit of Stingy Jack on his way would thereafter leave candles in carved potatoes or turnips on All Hallow's Eve. With the arrival of Irish immigrants in America, the native pumpkin was found to be a far superior lantern, both for its size and carveability, and so the Jack O'Lantern was born. It's become commonplace for homeowners who welcome trick-or-treaters to decorate their houses and front porches with Jack O'Lanterns and other various Halloween-themed decorations as an invitation to those seeking a treat.

With all of these changes, Halloween seems to have lost a lot of religious meaning, and has since become more of a community-based holiday rather than either a celebration of the turning of the season or a time to scare away bad fortune. While the religious traditions of these holidays are still observed by many, we can see how Halloween has evolved in most places to a secular holiday geared towards children, costumes and candy.


Please note: although we believe the information on this page to be accurate, its purpose is intended for the entertainment and enjoyment of our readers. It should not be taken as literal truth or used for research.

Click here to read some great quotes such as:

"Shadows of a thousand years rise again unseen,
Voices whisper in the trees,
'Tonight is Halloween!'"

~Dexter Kozen

"Where there is no imagination there is no horror."
~Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

"When black cats prowl and pumpkins gleam, May luck be yours on Halloween."
~Author Unknown

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