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Halloween's History & Origin


Overview of Halloween

Halloween Eve is the night that children and teenagers (and even some adults) dress up in costumes and go around their neighborhood trick-or-treating.  The day has not always been celebrated as such, nor is it still celebrated like this in various countries around the world.  Read on to find out some of the possible origins and history of this celebration.


Halloween: Origins of its Name

The name Halloween has been derived through the ages.  For instance, some refer to Halloween as All Hallow’s Eve. The word “hallow” meant sanctified or holly in old English – this was to reference the celebration on the following day (Nov. 1) for all of the Christian saints (the sanctified ones).


October 31st:

Halloween Eve

All Hallows Eve

Hallow E’en (Ireland)

November 1st:

All Saints Day

All Hallows Day

All Hallowmas

November 2nd

All Souls Day


When is Halloween Celebrated?

When most people, especially in the United States, think about Halloween, the thoughts of costumes and candy are conjured up for one evening of fun.  However, Halloween, October 31st, is only the first of three days of celebration and remembrance for various religions and cultures.


The modern holiday of Halloween gets many of its origins from a three day Druid fire festival [note: the ancient Druids used fire in their ceremonies – as do many modern religions which light candles in their own rituals] called Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”).  It was a holiday celebrated by the Celtic tribes that lived in the area of Scotland, Wales and Ireland over 2000 years ago.  The holiday was to celebrate the end of the year’s harvest and to pray for a quick winter.  In a sense it was to celebrate the ending of the fall and the beginning of the dark and cold winter.  The holiday was also meant to celebrate and honor the spirits of the dead – in fact it was supposed to be a celebration WITH the spirits of loved ones and friends who were walking the earth amongst the living at this time.  The druids believed that during this time between the seasons, spirits (good and bad) would roam the world of the living.

  • The festival in Ireland was also called La Samon – the Feast of the Sun

  • The Scottish celebrants called the holiday Hallowe’en

  • In Wales, the holiday was called Nos Galen-gaeof – Night of the Winter Calends

It is worth also noting that Mexico also celebrates a holiday named Dias de las Muertos (Day of the Dead) that honors the deceased which begins at the same time.  On first and second of November (actually beginning at midnight on October 31st), the Mexican people honor their deceased in a series of celebrations (for more information, see Dia de Las Muertos).


Day 1: Halloween Eve - October 31st

The ancient celtics would begin their holidays at sunset and continue through sunset the previous day.  When the celebration was changed by the Christians, this tradition of beginning the holiday at the prior sunset remained.  This was the evening before All Hallow’s Day – or as it was called, All Hallow’s Day Eve.


Day 2: All Saints Day - November 1st

Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate a day for all of the Christian Saints (known or unknown) on November 1st.  It is a solemn remembrance of those who lived in the path of god. The day is called by some as “All Hallows Day.”  As noted above, the word “hallow” meant “sanctified” in old English, the Saints, in this case being the sanctified ones.


The origins of All Hallows Day has its roots from the Ancient Roman holiday of Feralia – a day dedicated to giving prayer and sacrifices for the peace and honor of the deceased.  [The holiday also origins in another Roman holiday, the Feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees.]  This holiday was first celebrated at the end of the Roman Year. (Feb. 21st).  When the Catholic Church took over in the seventh century, the Roman celebration was replaced by the Christian holiday of All Saints Day.  This was then later moved to its current date – November 1st.  Note, the Greek Orthodox Church, however, changed the date to the first Sunday after Pentecost.


Day 3: All Souls Day - November 2nd

All Souls day is an extension of Samhain for the honoring and celebration of spirits of the deceased.  The Christian church could not completely change the holiday, but they altered the celebration to be more solemn and to conform more to Christian ideology.


What is the Origin of Trick-or-Treating?


The Halloween activity known as trick-or-treating is from the culmination of many different origins.  

  • In preparation for the festival of St. Columbus Kill, poor peasants would go door to door to the richer folk asking for money, bread and food.

  • During the middle ages, the poor would go around to the houses of the wealthy begging for Soul Cakes towards the end of the fall season.  They would offer up a piece of their “soul” to the persons that gave them cake to eat.  However, if a person did not give the beggar any soul cakes – the beggar would, at time, play a practical joke on the person.  These “practical jokes” would be blamed on the mythical fairies. Because the owner of the house did not want any jokes played on their house – by beggars or fairies, they would leave food out on the doorsteps of their house.  This would gain them blessings for the coming year.

  • In some areas throughout the Ireland, groups of boys and men would go around asking for food “in good humor” from their neighbors – and those that did not give, would suffer the practical jokes.

  • In the depression era of the 1930s, groups of ruffians (usually boys) would dress up in costume and go around harassing people for money and food on or around Thanksgiving.

  • In old England, children (and adults), on festive holidays, would go around to neighbors houses dressed up in costumes and would perform for money or food.

The idea of children going around and asking for candy has its origins in all of the above.  Today, especially in America, children will dress up in costume – sometimes homemade and sometimes store bought, then go to their neighbor’s houses and say “trick-or-treat.”  The owner of the house would usually give candy, although some (not very often) may also try to play a harmless trick on the little children


The actual term “trick-or-treat” is not very old.  It was first used sometime during the late 1930s and first appeared in the Miriam Webster dictionary in 1940.


Why are Witches Associated With Halloween?


The traditional idea of witches has been around for hundreds of years.  Stories of witches creating evil on the populace of man has been told for ages.  Most of these stories have a few things in common, that they are women who know some type of sorcery and are evil.


The original conception of witches has not changed, but has been reformed, especially in America.  During the 1600’s, when people began to settle the new continent, they brought, and spread their beliefe throughout the new world.  These beliefs became entangled with those of others, such those beleifs from the slaves (from Africa) and those of the Native Americans.


Most modern witches also have familiars (a magical creature that does the bidding of its master) – mostly, witches were portrayed with black cats.  Some stories also tell of witches, themselves, transforming into black cats.


The Witches Caldron

(by William Shakespeare)
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog

Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing

For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and babble

Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and caldron bubble


Origins of the Jack-O-Lantern


One Irish origin features a drunkard named Jack who struck a deal with the devil that went bad.  Jack had tricked the Devil into going up into a tree and getting him some fruit.  However, Jack trapped the Devil inside of the tree (by carving out a cross).  Jack made a deal – he would let the Devil go if he would promise not to take Jack’s soul when he died.  Many years passed by – then Jack died.  When he went up to heaven, St. Peter would not let him pass, since he had made a deal with the Devil.  Then, Jack went back to the Devil and pleaded to be let in – the Devil wanted nothing to do with him, and would not let him in either.  However, the Devil did give him some help – and with a smirk on his face, he gave Jack an ember from the fires of hell.  Jack took the ember and placed it into a hollowed out turnip.  Jack carved holes in the turnip to light his way for the rest of eternity with no place to rest.  A pumpkin eventually replaced the turnip, and the modern tradition began.  Originally the Irish began calling it the Jack in the Lantern – but eventually shortened it to Jack O’Lantern or Jack-O-Lantern


A similar story was about “stingy Jack” who tricked the Devil into turning into a silver coin, so that he could buy drinks for both of them.  However, he put the Devil, now in the shape of a coin, in his pocket next to a silver cross, and the Devil was trapped.  The rest of the story goes on the same as above.


Another Irish tradition originates with tales about fairies who were most active during the winter months, beginning around the time of Halloween.  In these tales, fairies would carry turnips with images of faces carved into them.  This is another possible origin to carving faces into pumpkins.


Then there is the story of the Legend of Sleepy Hallow, in which a headless horseman wears a fiery Jack-O-Lantern as its head. [Click here to read the story]


Pumpkins, the Halloween Vegetable

A pumpkin is a member of the gourd family (along with squash & cucumbers) and are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere (they began to grow here naturally).


The name pumpkin comes from the French, “gros melons.”  They were first “discovered” by the Europeans when Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, was introduced to them during his exploration of the St. Lawrence River in 1584.  The English, then translated this as “pompions,” which then eventually became “pumpkin.”

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Last modified: March 20, 2012

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