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The History of Halloween: The Chilling History of 14 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.

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What is the history of Halloween?

You may have found yourself wondering what is the history of Halloween, and why we celebrate it. Unlike many other holidays, there’a no major significant religious or historical event that this holiday celebrates. So why do we celebrate Halloween? And how did Halloween traditions become traditions in the first place?

Well, 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 original Halloween, dating back to ancient times, was a pagan celebration called Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”). The ancient Celts celebrated this holiday right around the end of October into early November (sound familiar?) because it was halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. The purpose of the celebration was to welcome the harvest season as well as the “dark half” of the year. Another component involved honoring deceased ancestors and providing offerings to departed spirits; the celebrants believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was especially weak during this time. Again, we see this influence in today’s Halloween traditions and symbols like ghosts, zombies, and Ouija boards.

As the influence of Catholicism spread, the Catholic church tweaked many pagan holidays like Samhain to make them religion-friendly. 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.” The history of halloween dates back centuries, and its origins aren’t all about collecting candy. After you’ve learned all about Halloween traditions, read about some creepy real events that actually happened on Halloween.

An old carriage with two skeletons, decorated with pumpkins, barrels, hay and cobwebs. Halloween decoration.Lukasz Sadlowski/Shutterstock

History of Halloween timeline

~100 BC: Ancient Celts celebrate Samhain with bonfires, feasts, and offerings to the souls of the dead.
700s: During the Middle Ages, the Catholic influence spreads to pagan holidays like Samhain. Pope Gregory III names November 1 All Saints’ Day.
1000 AD: The Church names November 2 All Souls’ Day; October 31 evolves into All Hallows’ Eve, creating a three-night religious celebration in Europe.
1800s: Irish and Scottish immigrants migrate to the United States, bringing the precursors of many of the Halloween traditions we know and love today.
Early 1900s: Halloween becomes popular for the teenage crowd, with high schools and rotary clubs throwing parties.
1930s: The Great Depression devastates the United States and Halloween celebrations take a dip; “celebrations” often come in the form of destructive pranks.
1950s: Suburbanization and the end of WWII sugar rations causes candy production, specifically for Halloween, to blow up; trick-or-treating as we know it today begins to emerge.
2019: Americans spend an average of $2.6 billion on Halloween candy!

This history of Halloween timeline focuses on Halloween in the United States, but there are lots of fascinating Halloween traditions from all around the world.

Autumn path in a forestBram van Broekhoven/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #1: Ghosts and spirits

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 worlds. Find out how All Souls’ Day is celebrated around the world.

Trick-or-treat paper sack held by halloween girl in traditional attirePressmaster/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #2: Trick-or-treating

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.

Young kids trick or treating during HalloweenRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #3: 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.

The Chilling History of 15 Halloween TraditionsLunaseeStudios/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #4: Eating candy

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.

Candy CornPierre Leclerc/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #5: Candy corn

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.

holidays, decoration and party concept - bunch of scary air balloons for halloween over white backgroundSyda Productions/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #6: Halloween parties

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.

High angle closeup of a metal tub filled with water and apples for the Halloween custom of Apple Bobbing.Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #7: 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.

Halloween Jack-o-LanternsAlik Mulikov/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #8: Carving pumpkins

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.

Group of evil candles burning in the darkness and copy space on wooden background. Black magic ritual or scary halloween rite. Vera Petruk/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #9: Candles

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.

Candy Christmas copyspace apples on wooden tableetorres/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #10:Candy apples

Further proving that Bonfire night is a huge contributor to the history of Halloween: Candy Apples. Halloween shares this tradition of candy apples, also called toffee apples, with Bonfire Night in the United Kingdom. We already know that apples and candy separately became associated with Halloween, but how did putting them together come about? Legend says it was an accident: In 1908, a Newark, New Jersey, confectioner William Kolb dropped an apple into his candy mixture. Another version of the story says he did it on purpose: Looking to make an attractive display for his red cinnamon candy, he dipped some apples in, and the yummy treat was born. Although he originally intended them as a Christmas candy, the harvest fruit was already tied to Halloween. For some more spooky fun, step into America’s longest-running haunted house.

creepy smashed Halloween pumpkin lying on a tablem.rudziewicz/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #11: Mischief Night

Once American Halloween became more about trick-or-treating and less about causing mayhem, mischief-makers created another night to run amok: October 30. In some parts of the United States, it’s also called Devil’s Night, Goosy Night, Cabbage Night (after the tradition of throwing vegetables), or Gate Night (stealing gates from fences). Commonly marked by semi-harmless pranks like egging or toilet-papering houses, ringing doorbells and then running away, and smashing pumpkins, the night became truly scary in 1984 in Detroit when over 800 fires were lit.

The Chilling History of 15 Halloween TraditionsBluIz60/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #12: Halloween parades

Your town may celebrate Halloween with a children’s parade to show off fun and spooky costumes—but Halloween parades are not just for kids, with New York and other cities putting on large, outlandish parades for adults, too. Originally, these civic events were part of the effort to divert pranksters from destruction. Anoka, Minnesota, claims to have created the first Halloween parade in America for this purpose, in 1920 and while this may be strictly true, when digging into the history of Halloween there’s a bit more to the story. Halloween processions also recall Mexican Day of the Dead parades, colorful pre-Hispanic celebrations remembering deceased loved ones that later morphed with the European religious feasts on November 1 and 2. Find out more fascinating facts about Day of the Dead.

scary hallway walkway in abandoned buildingSanchaiRat/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #13: Haunted houses

Enter… if you dare! Purposefully scaring yourself with live or animatronic ghosts, ghouls, and monsters seems silly but explores our fears of the unknown in a safe environment. Viewing such macabre scenes began in the nineteenth century, popularized by Madame Tussaud’s lifelike Chamber of Horrors in London. In 1930s America, creating haunted house-like scenes in basements began as another means of keeping kids out of mischief. The popularity of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, which opened in 1969, revealed the money-making power of the haunted house; the civic organization the Junior Chamber, also known as the Jaycees, then began using them as a fundraising effort. Today haunted houses and hayrides abound with major attractions such as California’s Knott’s Berry Farm known nationwide and part of a $300 million industry. Here are more of the best haunted houses in America.

front door of house with Halloween decorationsSpiroview Inc/Shutterstock

History of Halloween tradition #14: Halloween decorations

One jack-o-lantern might not cut it anymore when it comes to getting your house ready for Halloween, but outlandish displays of ghosts, spiderwebs, gravestones, and orange lights aren’t part of the history of Halloween, they’re a relatively modern tradition. In the early 20th century, paper and party goods companies began producing decorations for Halloween celebrations. First lady Mamie Eisenhower decorated the White House for Halloween for the first time in 1958. As trick-or-treating continued to gain popularity in the latter half of the 20th century, neighbors could venture from house to creepily-decorated house. Halloween decorating still grows with new traditions, including teal pumpkins indicating allergen-free treats, and jazzing up the trunk of your car for the trick-or-treat alternative trunk-or-treat. To get more into the spooky holiday spirit, here are 12 things you didn’t know about Halloween.

For more fun facts, costume ideas, traditions, candy inspiration, spooky entertainment, and updates on how October 31 will look different this year, check out our Halloween Guide.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.