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Historical Happenings

Origins of the Holiday and its Traditions

The origins of Halloween go back to pre-Christian times to Celtic groups in areas now known as Ireland, Scotland and Wales. According to most scholars, a great fire festival called Samhein signaled the close of the harvest and the initiation of the cold and dark season of winter. A variety of folklore and customs became associated with the celebration. 

Folk custom claimed that on this night the doors between the world of the dead and the world of the living opened. All the spirits of the people who died during the previous year were thought to be traveling from their resting place on earth to their final resting place in the next world. The Celts placed food and drink out to sustain the spirits, and people concealed their identity with disguises to escape harm while they walked from house to house to enjoy food and drink (much like trick-or-treating today). Many people also carved turnips to represent faces, marking the origination of today's jack-o-lanterns.

When Christianity took root in northern Europe, these folk customs were incorporated into a Christian framework. The celebrations in Ireland, Scotland and Wales eventually became All Saints' Day, a day to commemorate all dead saints and martyrs. All Saints' Day was sometimes known as All Hallows' Day, and the night before, All Hallows' Eve, or Hallowe'en, which we today call Halloween. Although the celebrations did aquire a distrinctly religious tone, many folk customs were still observed.

Settlers and immigrants from these regions brought their folk customs to America with them, where they took root and evolved over the years. Halloween was originally celebrated in America as a harvest festival. Carved turnips became carved pumpkins, which grew in abundance in America. Colorful costumes replaced disguises, and trick-or-treat evolved from presenting food and drink to the wandering spirits.

More Fun Facts about the Origins and Evolution of Halloween

  • Jack-o-lanterns are an Irish tradition. In Ireland, oversized rutabagas, turnips and potatoes were hollowed-out, carved into faces and illuminated with candles to be used as lanterns during Halloween celebrations.
  • The word “witch” comes from the Old Saxon word “wica”, meaning “wise one.” The earliest witches were respected dealers in charms and medicinal herbs and tellers of fortunes.
  • The pumpkin originated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago. It is one of America’s oldest known vegetables. Pumpkins generally weigh from 15-to-30 pounds, although some weigh as much as 200 pounds. The majority of pumpkins are orange, but they also can be white, yellow or striped. They are rich in vitamin A, beta-carotene and potassium, and their seeds provide protein and iron.

Halloween in America

  • The celebration of Halloween started in the United States as an autumn harvest festival. In pioneer days, some Americans celebrated Halloween with corn-popping parties, taffy pulls and hayrides.
  • Trick-or-treating, a largely American custom, was popularized in the 1950s by the Baby Boom generation. Its roots stem from 9th or 10th century Gaelic Ireland and other Celtic regions where disguises were worn to hide from spirits passing from one world to the next on All Hallows' Eve. 
  • In the late nineteenth century, with the large influx of Irish immigrants into the U.S., Halloween became associated with ghosts, goblins and witches. Over time it grew into a fun, playful holiday most popular with children.