Halloween originated from the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain. Over time, it transformed from a pagan ritual to a day of costumes, parties, jack-o-lanterns, and trick-or-treating for all ages.
Halloween is an ancient holiday celebrated on October 31. It has its roots in various festivals and religious rituals dating back centuries. Today, Halloween is celebrated in many countries around the world. In Ireland, Canada, and the United States, people celebrate with costume parties, trick-or-treating, pranks, and games. Similar versions of the holiday are observed elsewhere, such as in Mexico and other Latin American countries where the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is celebrated to honour deceased loved ones and ancestors. Guy Fawkes Day is commemorated in England on November 5 with bonfires and fireworks.
The Celebration of Día de los Muertos
All Souls’ Day is celebrated on November 2 in Mexico, Latin America, and Spain. The celebration lasts three days and begins on the evening of October 31. This celebration is meant to honour the dead who are believed to return to their earthly homes on Halloween. Many families constructed an altar for the dead during this time in their homes. The altar is decorated with candy, flowers, photographs, samples of the deceased’s favourite foods and drinks, and fresh water. A wash basin and towel are often left out so the spirit can wash before indulging in the feast.
Candles and incense are burned to help guide the deceased back to their homes. Relatives also clean and decorate the gravesites of their departed loved ones. This may include snipping weeds, making repairs, or painting. The grave is then adorned with flowers, wreaths, or paper streamers. On November 2, family members gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce. Some gatherings even include tequila and a mariachi band.
Did you know? Dia de los Muertos festivities often feature breads, candies, and other foods in the shape of skulls and skeletons.
What is Guy Fawkes?
On the evening of November 5th, bonfires are lit throughout the United Kingdom. Effigies are burned, and fireworks are set off, marking the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. Although it falls around the same time and has similar traditions, this celebration has little to do with Halloween or the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
The English, for the most part, stopped celebrating Halloween as Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation began to spread. As followers of the new religion did not believe in saints, they had no reason to celebrate the eve of All Saints’ Day. However, a new autumn ritual did emerge. Guy Fawkes Day festivities were designed to commemorate the execution of a notorious English traitor, Guy Fawkes.
On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was executed after being convicted of attempting to blow up England’s parliament building. Fawkes was a member of a Catholic group who wanted to remove the Protestant King James from power. The original Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated right after his execution. The first bonfires, “bone fires,” were set up to burn effigies and symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope. It was not until two centuries later that the effigies of the pope were replaced with those of Guy Fawkes.
In addition to making effigies to be burned in the fires, children in some parts of England also walk the streets carrying an effigy or “guy” and ask for “a penny for the guy” while keeping the money for themselves. This is as close to the American practice of “trick-or-treating” as in England today.
The pilgrims even celebrated Guy Fawkes Day at the first settlement at Plymouth. However, as the young nation began to develop its history, Guy Fawkes was celebrated less frequently and eventually died out.
Halloween in Ireland
Halloween originated in Ireland, and it is still celebrated similarly as it is in the United States. In rural areas, bonfires are lit, as they were in the days of the Celts. Children all over the country wear costumes and go trick-or-treating in their neighbourhoods. After trick-or-treating, most people attend parties with their neighbours and friends.
At these parties, many games are played, including "snap-apple," where an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree, and players attempt to bite it. In addition to bobbing for apples, parents often arrange treasure hunts with candy or pastries as the "treasure." The Irish also play a card game where cards are laid face down on a table with candy or coins underneath them. When a child chooses a card, they receive whatever prize is found below it.
A traditional food eaten on Halloween in Ireland is Barnbrack, a fruitcake that can be bought in stores or baked at home. It has a muslin-wrapped treat baked inside that is said to foretell the eater's future. If a ring is found, the person will soon be wed. On the other hand, if a piece of straw is found, a prosperous year is on its way. Children are also known to play tricks on their neighbours, such as "knock-a-dolly," where they knock on their doors and run away before the door is opened.
The tradition of Trick-or-Treating has roots in the ancient Celts, early Roman Catholics, and 17th-century British politics.
Trick-or-treating, the tradition of dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door to ask for treats on Halloween night, has been around for over a century in the United States and other countries. Although its origins are unclear, it can be traced back to ancient Celtic festivals, early Roman Catholic holidays, medieval customs, and even British politics.
Ancient Origins of Trick-or-Treating
Halloween originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated on the night of October 31. The festival was held in the areas that we now know as Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France around 2000 years ago. The Celts believed that on Samhain, the dead would come back to earth. People would light bonfires, make offerings, and pay their respects to the departed on this sacred night.
Interestingly, the exact origin of “trick or treat” remains unknown. However, the custom was already popular in American culture by 1951, as evidenced by its depiction in the Peanuts comic strip. In 1952, Disney produced a cartoon called “Trick or Treat,” featuring Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
During Samhain, some villagers wore costumes made of animal skins to drive away unwelcome spirits. They also laid out banquet tables and food offerings to appease the spirits. As time passed, people began dressing up as ghosts, demons, and other evil creatures and performing pranks in exchange for treats. This custom, known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is considered an early form of trick-or-treating.
Early Christian and Medieval Roots of Trick-or-Treating
Trick-or-treating has a complicated history. By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, gradually blending with and replacing older pagan rites. Eventually, in 1000 A.D., the church declared November 2 as All Souls’ Day, a time for honouring the dead. Celebrations in England closely resembled Celtic commemorations of Samhain, complete with bonfires and masquerades.
At the time, poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ deceased relatives. This practice was known as “souling” and was later adopted by children, who would go door-to-door asking for gifts such as food, money, and ale.
Meanwhile, in Scotland and Ireland, young people participated in a tradition called guising, in which they dressed up in costumes and accepted offerings from various households. Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke, or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts, or coins.
Guy Fawkes Night Celebrations
Trick-or-treating, a customary Halloween activity, is similar to the annual Guy Fawkes Night celebrations. During this event, British children would wear masks and carry effigies while asking for pennies to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. On November 5, 1606, Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators behind the plan to blow up England’s parliament building and depose King James I, was executed for his role. Initially, communal bonfires, known as “bone fires,” were lit to burn effigies and the symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope to mark the original Guy Fawkes Day. By the early 19th century, children carrying effigies of Fawkes were roaming the streets on the evening of November 5, asking for “a penny for the Guy.”
Trick-or-Treating in the United States and Facts
Halloween, a holiday that is widely celebrated in the United States, has its roots in the traditions of Guy Fawkes Day and Old World customs like souling and guising—the holiday gained popularity in the mid-19th century, particularly among the new immigrants seeking refuge from the Irish Potato Famine.
By the 1920s, pranks had become the norm on Halloween, with many young people engaging in rowdy behaviour. Unfortunately, the Great Depression only worsened matters, increasing vandalism, physical assaults, and even violence. In response, some communities began organizing trick-or-treating as a safer alternative to the pranks. However, the sugar rationing during World War II meant this trend couldn’t continue.
After the war, trick-or-treating made a comeback, becoming a standard practice for millions of children nationwide. As candy companies realized the profit potential, they launched national advertising campaigns to promote Halloween as a candy-centric holiday. Today, Americans spend an estimated $3.1 billion on candy for Halloween, making it the second-largest commercial holiday in the country.
Irish legend says turnips were carved with faces before pumpkins.
Pumpkins carved with spooky faces and lit by candles are a classic Halloween tradition. Cutting faces on vegetables may have originated in Ireland, where people used to carve large turnips. The name “jack-o’-lantern” comes from an Irish folktale about a man called Stingy Jack. When Irish immigrants arrived in America, they brought the tradition and adopted the pumpkin as the ideal canvas. It then became an essential part of Halloween celebrations.
Who is Jack?
For centuries, people have been making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween. One version of this tradition might have originated from an Irish legend first recorded in the 19th century. The story is about a man called “Stingy Jack” who invited the Devil to drink with him. Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for the drinks, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy them. Once the Devil did so, Jack kept the money and put it in his pocket next to a silver cross, preventing the Devil from returning to his original form.
Jack eventually freed the Devil, but only under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and would not claim Jack's soul if he died. Jack tricked the Devil again into climbing a tree to pick fruit the following year. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until he promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Shortly after, Jack died. According to the legend, God would not allow him into heaven, and the Devil, keeping his word, would not allow him into hell. So, he sent Jack off into the night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack placed the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been wandering the Earth with it ever since. This ghostly figure became known as “Jack of the Lantern” and later as “Jack O’Lantern.”
The term 'jack-o-the-lantern' likely comes from 'will-o-the-wisp,' a mysterious light seen in wooded or swampy areas at night. Sometimes, it is due to natural causes, but other times, it is caused by mischievous children lighting lanterns.
Jack O’Lanterns Origin
In Ireland and Scotland, people started creating their versions of Jack's lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips. They would put these turnips in the windows or near the doors to scare away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. In England, they used large beets instead of turnips. When these people migrated to the United States, they carried their vegetable-carving traditions. This helped evolve the American pumpkin-carving culture, now uniquely associated with Halloween.