Popular holiday filled with misconceptions, past traditions explain Halloween’s history

Deanna Huffman and Deanna Huffman

With so many traditions wrapped into one night — bobbing for apples, horror movies, dressing in costumes, watching parades, carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating— it’s no wonder that Halloween is the second most popular holiday in America.

The festivities incorporate people of all ages in one way or another and luckily for those of us with a sweet tooth, it’s right around the corner.

Despite its modern popularity involving costumes and candies, Halloween is actually a historic holiday with ancient roots. About 2,000 years ago, the Celtic people celebrated a yearly festival called Samhain on Nov. 1.

On the night before, Oct. 31, it was believed that the dead returned to haunt the earth as ghosts, so the people left food and wine on their doorsteps in order to keep the wandering ghouls at bay. They also wore masks in hopes of being mistaken as a fellow ghost and to ensure their safety.

In the 8th century, the Christian church ordained Samhain as All Saints Day— or All Hallows — and Oct. 31 was therefore known as All Hallows Eve. In Scots, the day was referred to as All Hallows Even/E’en and this later became shortened to Halloween.

The well-known tradition of trick-or-treating originated in medieval Britain because on All Souls Day [Nov. 2] impoverished people would come with outstretched arms and beg for pastries referred to as ‘soul cakes.’ In exchange for the pastries, the poor prayed for people’s dead relatives and current illnesses, and this was known

as ‘souling.’

Similarly, during the medieval tradition known as ‘guising,’ adolescents dressed up in masks and costumes and accepted small tokens such as food, wine, money and other valuables in exchange for singing, dancing, telling jokes, reciting poetry and other forms of


So how did we get from medieval guising to our ghoulish modern-day Halloween festivities? In the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants revived these ancient traditions within their new homes and neighborhoods in America and the result is what is known today as trick-or-treating.

At first, the occasion was greatly centered on “tricks,” in the form of pranks, hijinks and other mischiefs. It wasn’t until the 1950’s when the tradition took on its current family-friendly form.

Halloween has evolved and come a long way since its founding in ancient Celtic culture and that was only a brief history of the celebration’s roots. But today, it is the second most popular holiday behind Christmas, as American consumers spend more than 6 billion dollars a year on costumes and candy alone. This is not to mention the money spent on home and yard decorations as well as tickets to haunted attractions.

However— no matter your age— there is always something for you to enjoy this upcoming Halloween weekend, whether it’s taking your child trick-or-treating, visiting a haunted house, attending a costume party or simply enjoying a handful of candy corn and a mug of warm apple cider.

And who knows, maybe some of the traditions you like to take part in the most can be traced back to ancient medieval times.

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