The Chilling History of 15 Halloween Traditions
Now a night of frolic for children, this autumn holiday is actually a mashup of old rituals remembering the dead and celebrating the spirit world, with a bit of mischief thrown in.
Why do we celebrate Halloween?
Although it’s a secular holiday today, the history of Halloween has roots in ancient religious and spiritual traditions that have evolved over time. The Catholic All Saints’ Day, which remembers saints and martyrs, falls on November 1, and All Souls’ Day, which honors the faithful departed, is November 2—two holidays that have to do with death and the afterlife. The night before All Saints’ Day was called All Hallow’s Eve (“hallow” meaning holy), which turned into “Halloween.” Read about the creepy real events that actually happened on Halloween.
Spirits are thought to roam the earth
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All Saints’ Day was actually originally celebrated in May but moved to November in the ninth century to incorporate the Celtic holiday of Samhain at the end of October. (Plus, it just makes sense to celebrate the dead in autumn, when the leaves die and fall from the trees.) Samhain, which marked the conclusion of the harvest season, was also the Celtic new year, the end of the summer and the beginning of the dark and deadly season of winter. At this time, the Celts believed, the veil between life and death was at its thinnest, and spirits may travel between the two words. Find out how All Souls’ Day is celebrated around the world.
During Samhain, the Celts offered food as a way to ward off evil spirits. In the Middle Ages on the eve of All Saints’ Day, the poor would go “souling,” visiting houses and offering prayers for the family’s dead in exchange for food, called “soul cakes.” As Irish and Scottish immigrants brought Halloween traditions to America in the 19th century, the holiday began to be associated with mischievousness, and trick-or-treating became what one historian calls an “extortion deal:” Give us treats, or we’ll play a prank on you. As the vandalism became more serious, in the 1930s communities started encouraging trick-or-treating as we know it today in order to keep youngsters out of trouble. These are the best neighborhoods across the country for trick-or-treating.
Dressing in costume
To protect themselves from the potentially evil spirits that may appear during Samhain, the Celts wore animal skin costumes to hide in plain sight. If they looked like a fellow spirit, they believed, it would be safe to go outside. Later, a variant of souling called “guising” emerged in Scotland, in which children dressed up and asked neighbors for food or money in exchange for a song or poem. In nineteenth-century America, masked Halloween pranksters were harder to identify. Find out the secrets Halloween costume designers want you to know.
In the early days of trick-or-treating, the goodies weren’t necessarily candy. After the end of sugar rationing in World War II, candy companies realized the money-making power of Halloween. The baby boom was in full effect, and suburban neighborhoods perfect for trick-or-treating were growing. Small, affordable candies became the thing to give, especially as the 1970s and ’80s led rise to fears of the dangers of homemade or unwrapped sweets. Mass-marketed, individually wrapped treats seemed the best way to keep kids safe. Today, the National Confectioners Association estimates 77 percent of Americans will purchase Halloween candy, spending $2.7 billion a year. Speaking of candy corn, here are some corny Halloween puns you need to learn.
Although Halloween is associated with candy, most candy is not specifically associated with Halloween—except the ever-present candy corn. The love-it-or-hate-it sweet, with its seasonal stripes of yellow, orange, and white, was actually originally meant to look like corn kernels for chicken feed. Sounds appetizing, right? The confection was created by candy maker George Renniger in Philadelphia and first sold in 1898. Although not initially marketed for Halloween, candy corn’s harvest theme made it a perfect fit as trick-or-treating became more prevalent. Find out the most popular Halloween candy in every state.
Thanks to the popularity of trick-or-treating, Halloween is seen as a celebration for kids today. But for those adults who still get into the spirit, you’re not alone: Grown-up Halloween parties have been around since the holiday came to America before it became focused on the young. Based on the old Samhain feasts, these gatherings featured autumnal foods, like nuts and fruits, and party games. Activities associated with the spiritual, such as fortune-telling and ghost stories, were also often part of the fun. Try these Halloween party games to get you in the spooky spirit.
Bobbing for apples
Not surprisingly, one of the most time-honored Halloween party games centered around the classic fruit of harvest time, the apple, a symbol of fertility that features in many fortune-telling activities. One variation of bobbing for apples purports that whoever can grab the apple with their teeth will marry first; other versions have the apples marked with initials, indicating a successful bobbers’ future mate. The apple tradition may also have some roots in the Roman harvest festival celebrating Pomona, the goddess of fruit and orchards.
While today’s jack-o-lanterns tend to lean towards comical, when it comes to the history of Halloween traditions like this one, there’s a good mix of spooky in the story. According to the original Irish legend, Stingy Jack tried to cheat the devil out of his soul. But when Jack died, heaven didn’t want him either, so the devil cursed him to roam the earth using a carved-out turnip as a lantern. A tradition began of carving scary faces into turnips, beets, or potatoes and putting them in the window to scare away “Jack of the Lantern” and other spirits. That’s right, it may be decorative gourd season today, but the first jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips. When Halloween came to America, people figured out that pumpkins make even better jack-o-lanterns. Try these genius hacks for pumpkin carving you’ll use from now on.
Flickering flames are no doubt associated with jack-o-lanterns, but the origin of fire’s role in Halloween goes back to Samhain yet again. As part of the ancient festival, a large bonfire would be lit to ward off spirits and lead them to the afterlife. The Celts would then light their hearth fires for the winter from the sacred bonfire. In the United States today, we generally prefer candles to giant fires for spooky ambiance, but in England, Bonfire Night on November 5, has actually been more popular than Halloween. Also known as Guy Fawkes Day, it commemorates the thwarted Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 and is celebrated today with many traditions similar to Halloween. Read about more ways Halloween is celebrated around the world.