Halloween is one of the most popular holidays in the United States. In fact, the National Retail Federation is already predicting that spending for Halloween celebrations will reach $9 billion for the second year in a row in 2018! That likely makes it the largest non-gift-giving holiday in terms of spending.

As many Americans prepare to drop serious money on decorations, costumes, and of course, candy this Halloween, have you ever stopped and wondered why? Halloween is the time of year when we celebrate what scares us most. We put on our favorite scary movies, visit scary places, attend scary events, dress up to terrify our friends, and decorate our houses in ways that’d worry the neighbors any other time of the year. So, why do we have a holiday dedicated to being scared? Also, why do we go from house to house asking for candy from our neighbors? And, why pumpkins?

When you think about it, there are a lot of Halloween traditions that raise questions (in addition to goosebumps), and the answers to them are often surprisingly ancient!

How Did Halloween Come to Be?

The pagan origin of Halloween goes all the way back to the Celtic holiday called Samhain (pronounced SOW-wen). Samhain was the Celtic new year and marked the end of the harvest. Beginning at today’s equivalent of sundown on October 31 and ending on today’s equivalent of November 1 (it predates the modern calendar by hundreds of years), Samhain was celebrated with bonfires, feasts, and games.

Why’s It Spooky?

Samhain wasn’t just an earthly holiday, but a religious one as well. The Celtic calendar was broken into two halves, the light half (summer) and the dark half (winter). Samhain marked the end of the light half of the year and the start of the dark half, when nights were long and full of frights.

On Samhain, it was believed the veil between our world and the spirit world was at its thinnest, letting all sorts of things through.

It was believed that on Samhain, the veil between our world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. At this time, you would honor the spirits of your loved ones, who would visit. If ghosts were not appeased that night, it was believed the household would have bad luck for the next year. Samhain was also considered a good time for telling the future or divination. These practices and beliefs were later demonized by the Christian church, which further ingrained elements of mysticism and horror into the celebrations.

How’d Samhain Become Halloween?

Once Catholicism spread into Celtic Europe, the holiday would transform into All Saints’ Day on November 1. This day was also called All Hallows’ Day and the day before it, when Samhain used to start, was All Hallows’ Eve. Eventually, All Hallows’ Eve became known as simply Halloween!

What’s the Deal with Trick-or-Treating?

Historians believe the tradition of trick-or-treating originated with people leaving offerings out on Samhain to appease wandering spirits. This evolved into a tradition of guising, when young ones went from house to house offering to perform tricks for treats like money, snacks, or even alcohol. Later, when November 1 became All Saints’ Day, going souling replaced this tradition. When people went souling, they’d go from house to house, offering to pray for their neighbors’ deceased loved ones in exchange for soul cakes.

Souling was going from house to house, offering to pray for their neighbors’ deceased loved ones in exchange for soul cakes.

Irish and Scottish immigrants brought the customs of guising and souling to America in the 19th century. By the 1950s, trick-or-treating had evolved and turned into the family-friendly activity it is today.

Why Do We Give Out Candy?

Over time, we stopped giving money or booze to children, leaving delicious treats as items to hand out. Until recently, baked goods were popular treats on Halloween. Many people switched to candy for a few reasons.

Until recently, baked goods were popular treats on Halloween, but switched to prepackaged candy for a few reasons.

After World War 2, prepackaged candy grew in popularity. It’s also easy to dish out. In addition, when rumors of razor blades or poison in candy started surfacing, homemade goods were seemingly permanently replaced. The growing awareness of food allergies helps ensure that prepackaged candies remain a relatively safe option for trick-or-treaters.

Why Do We Wear Costumes?

If you had to go out on Halloween but didn’t want to be accosted by a wandering spirit, you had to have some way to protect yourself. That’s why we dress up while trick-or-treating. By disguising themselves, trick-or-treaters aimed to confuse malevolent spirits into thinking that they’re also ghosts, fairies, or witches. This merged with the guising tradition of dressing up, and ultimately, led to the costumed trick-or-treating we have today.

What’s Up with Jack O’ Lanterns?

The Jack O’ Lantern is a quintessential symbol of Halloween. A glowing pumpkin with a wide, gap-toothed grin is both welcoming and terrifying at the same time. But, why do we leave out pumpkins during Halloween? Why do we carve faces into them? And why do we call them Jack?

Why do we carve pumpkins?

It may surprise you that Jack O’ Lanterns originally weren’t pumpkins. In Ireland, where the tradition started, they used turnips! Celts would carve faces into the turnips and place a burning coal inside. Only when Halloween came to America did they start using pumpkins, which are thankfully much easier to carve. The reason behind carving faces into turnips or pumpkins is the same reason behind why we dress up. To scare away the evil spirits that haunt the night. Carved pumpkins (or turnips), when lit up, mimic will-o’-the-wisps and fairy lights.

Why do we call them Jack O’ Lanterns?

This name stems from an Irish folktale. As it goes, there was a man named Stingy Jack, who offered to have a drink with the Devil. The Devil took him up on that offer, only to find that Jack was living up to his name. Jack convinced the Devil to turn into a coin to pay for the drinks. Once the Devil was a coin, Jack put it in his pocket next to a silver cross, preventing the Devil from turning back. Jack let the Devil go with the condition that he’d be protected for a year. After a year, the Devil returned, but Jack tricked the Devil again and secured another 10 years of protection.

As the legend goes, the Devil cursed him to wander the Earth for eternity with only a burning coal to light his way.

Eventually, Jack died, but God would not allow his soul to enter Heaven. After all, Jack was so devious that he tricked the Devil twice! At the same time, Jack couldn’t enter Hell, because the Devil had promised not to collect his soul. Instead, the Devil cursed him to wander the Earth for eternity with only a burning coal to light his way. According to the tale, Jack placed this coal in a carved-out turnip and has been wandering around ever since. Eventually, he became known as “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’ Lantern,” by the Irish.

● ● ●

Halloween is a holiday that’s packed with traditions, folklore, and superstition. Today, we’ve only scratched the surface of Halloween traditions, which in many ways represent much of European history. (We haven’t even discussed why we bob for apples and why vampires hate garlic, for example!) Now that you know the ancient history of Halloween, have fun trick-or-treating and make sure you’ve got protection from the things that go bump in the night!

Further Reading

History — Halloween
National Geographic — Everything You Need to Know About Halloween 2017