A History of Halloween

A History of Halloween

Kaiya Cronkhite, Writer/Designer


Halloween originated from the Celtic festival of Samhain, where people would light bonfires to celebrate and wear costumes to ward off spirits. As well as celebrations, people began setting out food as offerings to spirits during Samhain, which is how the tradition of setting out candy began. The Celtic people believed that the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Celtic priests, called Druids, to make predictions about the future. Druids made huge, sacred bonfires, where people burned crops and sacrificed animals to the Celtic deities. During this event, people wore costumes such as animal skins and attempted to predict each other’s fortunes. 

In Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guising, where they dressed up in a costume and accepted offerings from various households for doing a song or dance. In the 9th century, Celtic people would visit houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for promising to pray from the owner of the home’s dead relatives. This was called souling. Decorating Jack-o’-Lanterns originated in Ireland, where they would carve large turnips and potatoes. The name Jack-o’-Lantern actually came from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. 

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered much of Celtic territory, and the new traditions began to merge with the old. One Roman tradition was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol for Pomona is an apple, which is where the activity of bobbing for apples came from. By the 9th century, Christianity had spread to the Celtic lands, where it eventually blended with the older traditions. In 1000 A.D, the church made Nov. 2 All Souls’ Day, which was created  to honor the dead. All Soul’s Day was similar to Samhain: there were big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes. All Souls’ Day costumes were saints, angels and devils. 

All Souls’ Day was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas. Halloween celebration was very limited in colonial New England because of rigid Protestant beliefs. Halloween, however, was very common in Maryland and the southern colonies. All the beliefs and customs of different European ethnicities and Native Americans meshed together, and a distinctly American Halloween was born. Some of the first celebrations were called “play parties,” which were events held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also involved ghost stories and all kinds of mischief making. Young women believed that on Halloween they could enchant the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, mirrors or apple parings. 

Did you know?: Although nobody really knows where the phrase “Trick-Or-Treat” originated, it was firmly embedded in American culture by 1951, when trick-or-treating was depicted in a Peanuts comic strip. In 1952, Disney released a cartoon called “Trick or Treat” with Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Duey and Louie. 

Witch hysteria gained strength in Europe during the mid-1400s when many single women, widows and other women on the margins of society were accused of and confessed to being witches. Often women only confessed under torture. Most of the accused were executed, and between the years of 1500 and 1660, up to 80,000 suspected witches were executed in Europe.