Boo! While Halloween is officially on October 31st, the celebrations often start as early as September and continue throughout the spooky season. The holiday has origins in Europe and though it is becoming increasingly popular there, in the U.S. the levels of celebration rival those of Christmas and the New Year. Whether you are more into tricks or treats, we’re confident that you’ll learn something new in our Halloween guide below!
How did it all start?
Modern-day Halloween originated as an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (“summers end”). Celebrated throughout Europe (including modern England, Ireland, and Scotland), it marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that this was a magical time during which the gate to the spirit realm opened, allowing ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings to walk among humans. On the night of October 31st, Celtic druids would light bonfires to get in touch with beings from the spirit realm.
When the Catholic Church rose in Europe, it co-opted Samhain and the Celtic New Year, giving the holiday a new name: “All Hallow’s Eve”. As Irish and Scottish immigrants came to America in the late 19th century, they brought practices from All Hallow’s Eve with them, and Halloween as we know it today began to take shape.
Where did trick or treating come from?
Well… we aren’t 100% sure! The precise origins of the phrase “trick or treat” are unknown, however there is a rich history of traditions that led up to the modern day activity:
🎃 Souling: A tradition that began during Samhain in which poor children would go door-to-door begging for food and money. In exchange, they would pray for the souls of their neighbors’ deceased loved ones. This was an important offering because while the dead roamed the Earth on the night of Samhain, only community prayers could save their souls.
🎃 Mumming: Once Christianity reached the countries that celebrated Samhain and it became All Hallow’s Eve, the tradition of souling evolved. Instead of just promising prayer, young people would sing, recite poems, tell jokes, or do some other “trick” before getting a treat, usually fruits, nuts, or coins.
🎃 Guising: Halloween costumes originated in this medieval tradition of disguising oneself as a ghost to blend in with the spirits who emerged during Samhain. Later when the holiday became All Hallow’s Eve, people dressed up as angels, saints, and devils as they bargained for treats.
🎃 Tricks: The “trick” part of trick or treating took a turn for the worse in the 1920s, when souling turned into pranking and devolved into vandalism and crime during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, community based trick or treating traditions aimed to bring order to the chaos and keep communities safe on Halloween night.
🎃 Candy: The tradition of trick or treating was somewhat curtailed by sugar rations during World War II. However, trick or treating as we know it today surged with the post war baby boom. Children could go door to door in newly built suburbs and candy companies capitalized off of the lifting of sugar rations with targeted advertising campaigns around Halloween.
What’s with all the pumpkins?
When the Halloween season rolls around, Americans decorate their houses inside and out with scary props such as skeletons, gravestones, and spider webs. One of the most traditional Halloween decorations you’ll find is a jack-o’-lantern. Did you know this popular tradition actually began with carving turnips? An Irish myth alleges that a man called Stingy Jack tricked the devil for his own gain. When he died, he could not enter heaven or hell and was instead doomed to wander the earth for the rest of time. Once Irish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they began carving spooky faces into turnips to scare away Jack’s spirit.
What does Halloween look like around the world?
Halloween is incredibly popular in the U.S. and while its popularity is rising in Europe, it is not an international holiday. However, there are many holidays that share traits with Halloween around the world.
🇮🇹 Borgo a Mozzano in Tuscany, Italy is a multi day event involving spooky interactive games, performance theater, and paranormal experiments. Its grand finale is on the evening of October 31st at Ponte della Maddalena (Bridge of Mary Magdalene), also known as the Devil’s Bridge. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is based upon centuries of local lore involving the devil, witches, and a noblewoman named Lucida. Recreating Lucida’s tale, a costumed procession goes to the bridge and throws Lucida into the water below.
🇳🇵 In Nepal, Gai Jatra (Cow Festival) honors those who have died in the past year. Legend states that cows help the departed to make the journey to the other side. Nowadays, it is common for children to dress as cows. The day’s events include music, singing, food, comedy, and elaborate costumes and face paint.
🇲🇽 Contrary to popular belief, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is not simply Mexico’s version of Halloween. While it shares the origin of being a holiday to honor the departed, it has its own rich set of traditions. From November 1st to 2nd, families celebrate their deceased loved ones. Celebrations include wearing elaborate Day of the Dead makeup, eating pan de muerto (a sweet bread) and participating in parades.
🇳🇬 The Awuru Odo Festival is a tradition among Nigeria’s Northern Igbo. It is based on the belief that every two years a massive return of the dead occurs where the departed spend up to six months communing with the living. The festival welcomes the spirits back into the world with feasts and drinking, summoning into their former homes, and a sendoff involving a theatrical Odo masquerade where masked actors reenact the excitement of their visit and the grief of their departure.