Halloween's origins can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain, which was held on November 1 in contemporary calendars. It was believed that on that day, the souls of the dead returned to their homes, so people dressed in costumes and lit bonfires to ward off spirits.
What is Halloween?
As it exists today in the United States, Halloween is a holiday when we can all indulge in the darker, creepier side of life and eat loads of candy. It’s a lot of fun, a little spooky and anything but serious. Historically, however, the holiday was religious in nature and extremely significant to the culture of the people who celebrated it.
When is Halloween?
In America, Halloween is always celebrated on October 31. Countries that celebrate Halloween as we do, like Canada, share the same day. However, not everyone is as Halloween obsessed as Americans.
In England, Halloween is generally not celebrated at all. That was a result of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, the United Kingdom celebrates a completely unrelated holiday around this time (on November 5, to be precise): Guy Fawkes Day, which revolves around the execution of an infamous traitor and features bonfires, burning effigies and fireworks.
In Mexico, people celebrate Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. While it takes place from October 31 to November 2, it is very different in tone from Halloween. Yes, people do dress up as colorful skeletons and celebrate in the streets, but the point is to honor the dead and welcome their spirits back to earth, not to be fearful of them. To celebrate, people also adorn the graves of their ancestors with decorations and offer food to let them know they haven’t been forgotten.
Why do we dress up on Halloween?
Halloween is an open invitation to dress up as someone (or something) else and play pretend. But where did wearing Halloween costumes come from?
While many people think that wearing costumes comes from the Celts, Morton begs to differ. "We have no evidence whatsoever of that. It is very modern."
The reason why we wear them is somewhat of a mystery to both Morton and Kelly.
In the 1920s, magazines featured kids draped in sheets pretending to be ghosts — but Morton said it's possible that costumes were worn well before then. They may even be linked to an old Christmas tradition where costumed children would perform plays for their neighbors in exchange for treats. Sounds just like modern-day Halloween, doesn't it?
Why do we go trick or treating?
Trick or Treat might be a strange concept, but it was very common for children to do this during Samhain. Trick or treating evolved from a ritual where people dressed in spooky costumes, performed dances and received treats to appease the evil spirits.
By the time Christianity had spread into Britain, a new practice had developed. During this time, poor people would visit the houses of the rich and receive pastries called soul cakes, in exchange for promises to pray for the homeowners' dead relatives.
In Scotland and Ireland, young people would visit houses and sing, recite a poem or perform another sort of 'trick' before receiving a treat of nuts, fruit or sometimes coins. This is likely where the term 'trick or treating' came from, as we know it in the modern day.
Why do we carve pumpkins?
Pumpkins are arguably the most iconic symbol of Halloween, but why did we start carving them? It originates from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil for his own monetary gain. When Jack died, he couldn't get in to either Heaven and Hell so had to roam the Earth for all eternity.
Jack's wandering soul scared people, so they'd carve scary faces into turnips to scare him away. When Irish immigrants moved to the US, they started to use pumpkins instead as they grow naturally there. The story of Stingy Jack is why Americans often call carved pumpkins Jack o'Lanterns.