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History You Should Probably Know: Why We Celebrate Halloween

Halloween decorations

Halloween is right around the trick-or-treat corner! And in true Honest History fashion, we’re here to give you a bit of backstory on the holiday. So while you’re carving pumpkins, perhaps share with your children the “tall tale” of All Hallows Eve…

Let’s start at the beginning: Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the cold, dark winter. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, thus the “haunted” connotations of how we celebrate today. 

It was indeed a celebration to connect with spirits for the Celts, as they built huge sacred bonfires where they gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. 

By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted older Celtic rites. In AD 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It’s widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday.

All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. The All Saints’ Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

The celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems. The first celebrations included “play parties,” which were public events held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance, and sing. By the middle of the 19th century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.

In the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, and they helped popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. For example, jack-o-lanterns: In the 19th century, people in Ireland and Scotland would carve faces into turnips and illuminate them with candles. The turnips would be placed along the streets to ward off evil spirits. When Irish immigrants settled in the U.S., they brought the tradition with them. However, since there were no turnips, they used pumpkins instead.

Snap-apple night by Daniel Maclise
Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise in 1833. This painting was inspired by a Halloween party Maclise attended in Blarney, Ireland.

Likewise, during the early celebrating days, people were said to dress up as saints and recite songs or verses door to door. Children would also go door to door asking for "soul cakes," a treat similar to biscuits. (Soul cakes originated as part of the All Souls' Day holiday but eventually became a part of Halloween night as the concept evolved into trick-or-treating.) The candy-grabbing concept also became mainstream in the U.S. in the early to mid-1900s, during which families would provide treats to children in hopes that they would be immune to any holiday pranks.

As for costumes, while they began as earnest tributes to saints, that tradition likely fell out of favor at some point until young Scottish and Irish pranksters got the idea to dress up in scary-looking garb again as a way to spook unsuspecting neighbors. And just like that, thanks to these local hooligans, Halloween costumes became scary, spooky, funny, and creative.

So there you have it! The legend and lore of Halloween. And speaking of creative costumes, you can usually find us dressing up as a homage to history. So if you need any last-minute ideas, look no further than the pages of a book (or our magazine!) and call on the stories of old to revisit today.

Also, you can DOWNLOAD an exclusive, fun, FREE coloring page to work on with your kiddos while you enjoy those Halloween treats. Happy haunting!