Halloween History

The first Halloween celebrations can be traced back to the ancient Celts.

Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Samhain was celebrated in the British Isles, particularly in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that on the night of October 31st, the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred, allowing spirits to roam the Earth.

The word “Halloween” is believed to have originated from the Middle English term “Alhallowe’en,” which means “All Hallows’ Eve.” It referred to the night before All Saints’ Day[1], a Christian holiday. Over time, “Alhallowe’en” evolved into “Halloween.” The Gaelic influence on Halloween is substantial, as it was originally a Celtic holiday.

Samhain involved various rituals and traditions, such as lighting bonfires to ward off evil spirits, wearing costumes made of animal skins, and making offerings to appease the spirits. Halloween was brought to North America by Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century.

Over time, it merged with other European and Native American traditions, evolving into the holiday we know today. The carving of pumpkins into Jack-o’-lanterns, for example, was inspired by Irish folklore about a character named Stingy Jack[2]. Halloween is associated with several symbols, including pumpkins, witches, ghosts, black cats, bats, skeletons, and spiders.

The reigning champion in jack-0-lantern displays is the City of Keene, which broke the Guinness World Record in 2013 by lighting 30,581 pumpkins. The city was the first to hold a record in this category and, committed to their winning status, has since broken their own record eight times.

These symbols are often used in decorations and costumes. The tradition of trick-or-treating likely has its roots in the medieval practice of “guising,” where people would dress in costumes and go door-to-door to sing songs, recite poems, or perform tricks in exchange for food or money. In North America, it evolved into the custom of children dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door for candy.

Dressing up in costumes is a central part of Halloween, with people of all ages donning disguises. These costumes can range from spooky and supernatural characters to pop culture figures. It allows individuals to express creativity and embrace the spirit of the holiday. Halloween traditions include various games and activities, such as apple bobbing, pumpkin carving, haunted house tours, and costume parties. These activities are meant to provide entertainment and add to the festive atmosphere.

Trick or treating became popular in America in the 1930s, when it was acceptable to hand out everything from homemade cookies, to nuts, toys, and coins. Candy companies started marketing pre-packaged Halloween offerings in the 1950s, and 20 years later, it became the primary treat given out to children.

Haunted houses, mazes, and attractions are popular during the Halloween season. These places are designed to scare visitors with spooky decor, actors in frightening costumes, and eerie sound effects. Halloween is associated with special food and drinks, such as candy, caramel apples, popcorn balls, and seasonal treats like pumpkin pie. Parties often feature themed dishes and desserts.

Candy corns first appeared on the market around the 1880s, a time when about half of the American workforce was made up of farmers. Because of this, candies were often made into agricultural shapes, such as chicken feed, which we now think of as corn shaped. The change occurred after World War I, when corn became viewed as people food.

In the Christian calendar, November 1st is All Saints’ Day, a day to honor saints and martyrs. October 31st, Halloween, is the eve of this feast. Some Christian denominations have embraced Halloween, while others view it with caution or as a secular celebration.

Pumpkin carving is a leisurely activity for most, but competitive carver Stephen Clarke set the Guinness World Record in 2013 by completing his masterpiece in under 17 seconds. In order to qualify, the pumpkin had to have a nose, eyes, mouth, and ears.

Similar festivals to Halloween exist in various cultures. For example, Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) and China’s Hungry Ghost Festival share themes of honoring the deceased and appeasing spirits. Halloween is primarily celebrated in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and other Western countries. However, it has gained popularity in many other parts of the world in recent years, often with localized variations.

Halloween spending in the US reached its all-time high in 2022 with $10.6 billion planned to be spent on the holiday in total, up from $10.1 billion in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation. On average, Americans are spending an average of $100.45 on Halloween, with $29.51 on that on candy, making for $3.1 billion spent on candy nation-wide.

  1. All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1st, is a Christian holiday dedicated to honoring all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown, who have passed away and now reside in heaven. This solemn observance is particularly prominent in the Roman Catholic Church and various other Christian denominations. On this day, believers gather to pay homage to these holy individuals, seeking inspiration from their lives and recognizing their spiritual significance. It serves as a time for reflection and remembrance, with many attending church services and offering prayers for the departed. All Saints’ Day is often followed by All Souls’ Day, which focuses on commemorating all the faithful departed, offering prayers for their souls, and highlighting the connection between the living and the deceased. [Back]
  2. Stingy Jack is a character from Irish folklore known for his cunning and miserly ways. The legend tells of a man named Jack who tricked the Devil into making a pact with him, and later, when he died, he was denied entry to both heaven and hell. As a result, he was condemned to wander the earth with only a hollowed-out turnip or pumpkin with a lit coal inside as his lantern, which became the origin of the modern Jack-o’-lantern. Stingy Jack’s story is closely associated with the origins of Halloween and the tradition of carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns. [Back]

Further Reading


Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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