Take a look back at how this trick-or-treating holiday arose from a confluence of pagan, Celtic, and Christian rituals.

By Roxanna Coldiron
August 23, 2019
ZACHARY ZAVISLAK

Before the summer ends and an autumn chill strikes the air, you may already see pumpkins arrive at the farmers market. Costumes, decorations, and candy by the bagful are all soon to follow. You will likely attend your fair share of Halloween parties (maybe even host one yourself) or take your kids out trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. But—beyond the ghoulish activities and ghost stories—why do we truly celebrate October 31? The answer to that question varies; yet, it's obvious that today's Halloween draws from many different influences.

Related: Seven Legendary Halloween Characters (and the Pumpkins to Match)

The Ancient Origins of Halloween

Halloween harkens back to Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival that is still celebrated today. On the first of November, the festival recognizes the end of summer (the meaning of "Samhain") with a religious element: The Celts believed that the gods and their world would be visible to humankind. Gods enjoyed playing tricks on their human worshippers, so the season was filled with fear and supernatural practice to ward off the danger. Practitioners would welcome the new harvest and prepare for the cold winter months ahead with a set of pagan rituals.

Another influence on Halloween is the Catholic observation of All Saints' Day. This holiday is also celebrated on the first of November with the purpose of honoring those from the Church who have already passed on to heaven. All Souls' Day, in contrast, recognizes those baptized believers who have passed on without getting a chance to confess their sins first. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, living believers can pray for the souls of their loved ones in this purgatory state to cleanse them of their unforgiven sins, allowing them to eventually go to heaven, on November 2. Because All Saints' Day was often called All Hallows' Day or Hallowmas, the day before would be called All Hallows' Eve. This was eventually shortened to Hallowe'en. It's believed that Scottish poet Robert Burns helped to popularize the word "Halloween" with his 1785 poem of the same name. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it's actually two words smushed together. "Hallow"—or holy person—refers to the saints celebrated on All Saints' Day. The "een" part of the word is a contraction of "eve"—or evening before.

According to History, the tradition of going door to door to ask for treats comes from an old English custom in which people would knock on doors and ask for "soul cakes" as a payment for praying for the household's dead. Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and England that celebrated the pagan holiday Samhain and the Catholic holidays All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day brought these traditions to colonial America.

How Halloween Traditions Began in Modern Day

Early American colonists did not celebrate Halloween at large. The more Puritanical colonies had rigid systems that would not have found such a holiday appropriate, but the southern colonies had no such qualms. Harvest festivals included ghost stories and fortune-telling. People would engage in "play parties," in which guests would dress up in costumes and share tales of the dead. Singing and dancing were also part of the merriment. Even so, it was still not widely celebrated as a holiday.

The 1800s involved another shift for Halloween when immigrants from Ireland arrived to American shores. The melting pot of early America contributed to a blending of a variety of beliefs in which our modern Halloween emerged. The Irish and English immigrants, for example, had a Halloween tradition of dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for food or money. It was an early version of trick-or-treating, and the early Americans thought it was fun enough to try it themselves.

In the 20th century, Halloween became a secular, community-centered celebration. Towns would host parades and riotous parties in the '20s and '30s. But they weren't able to stop all of the "tricks" from Halloween enthusiasts; vandalism was on the rise. So, how could the town leaders redirect that energy? They decided to focus on younger children, costumes, and trick-or-treating, with an emphasis on sweet treats. Towns designated a day of the week to be the community-wide trick-or-treating night, and everyone looked forward to it. And this eventually became an outdoor event of going door to door in what became our version of trick-or-treating.

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