Origins of Halloween

With Halloween right around the corner, I thought I’d take a break from exploring continents, and instead discuss the eerie background of this October celebration!


Halloween: This holiday dates back 2000 years to Celtic villages during the time of year where the fall harvest ended and winter began to set in. People would dress up in costumes and commemorate the deceased. By 600 A.D., as Christianity spread, so did the Halloween tradition, under the name of “All-hallows”. Over time, it gained the name “All-hallows eve”, which turned into “Halloween”. In colonial America, Halloween was not widely celebrated due to protestant beliefs. However, as more European ethnic groups began to arrive, Halloween started to gain some recognition. By the early 1900s, it became a much more secular, community-based celebration. Many of the Halloween superstitions can be traced far back as well. For example, people avoid black cats due to a belief from the middle ages that witches could disguise themselves as black cats. The history of Halloween is so long and full of interesting details, and it would take a few pages to give a full picture of its origins. However, one can clearly see how much the holiday has evolved over the past two-thousand years.


Jack O’ Lanterns: Stingy Jack is the central character from an old Irish legend. One day, he invited the devil to have drinks with him. Once drinks were over, he asked the devil to turn into a coin so that he wouldn’t have pay. Jack, being sneaky, took the coin (that was actually the devil) and put it in his pocket next to a cross that wouldn’t allow the devil to take his original form. Jack made a deal that if he allowed the devil to transform back to his original form, the devil would not take his soul. After Jack died, it is said that he wasn’t allowed into heaven due to the acts which he committed, but the devil also couldn’t allow him into hell (because of the deal he struck). With nowhere to go, Jack was sent into the night with nothing but burning coal to give him light. Jack put the coal in a carved turnip, and is said to roam the night ever since.The ghost of Jack is referred to as “Jack O’ Lantern”. After the legend spread, people made Jack O’Lanterns to scare away spirits such as Stingy Jack.


For a while, turnips and potatoes were used, but when pumpkins were discovered, people found that they made much better Jack O’Lanterns and began carving them instead. Pumpkin carving has always been one of my favorite halloween traditions, and last night at the pumpkin festival, I got to see over one hundred pumpkins carved by people of all ages. It’s really interesting how an item with such a dark background has turned into a fun activity for children all across the United States, and a symbol of autumn as well.


Trick or Treat: Much like Halloween itself, this tradition can be traced back to about 2,000 years ago in Celtic villages, where people would wear animal skins or dress up as monsters, and prepare offerings for the deceased. By 1000 A.D., poor people and children would knock on doors of wealthy families and receive food. The tradition had even spread to Scotland and Ireland, as children would dress up, knock on doors, perform a trick, and be rewarded with either money or a treat. Skipping forward to the U.S. in the 1920s, Halloween night was a signal for teenagers to perform harmful and violent pranks. As a result, by the 1930s, an organized form of trick or treating was organized, which we still continue today.


Today, trick or treating is presented in such a modern way, with barely any reference to its ancient origins. For that reason, I was shocked when I learned how far back its history stretches. Also, I wouldn’t have guessed that trick or treating was once seen as something serious, first to pay tribute to the deceased, and then for poor families to receive food. It’s neat that in today’s U.S. culture, where there are less prevalent superstitious beliefs and a relatively small fraction of people who are starving, trick or treating has turned into an entertaining activity for children instead of fading away.


Here’s a graphic with lots of interesting (and surprising) statistics about Halloween in 2015! Staff. “History of the Jack O’ Lantern.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

History. “History of Trick-or-Treating.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. Staff. “History of Halloween.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

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