You Are At: AllSands Home > History > Events > The origins of Halloween
Ghosts, goblins, ghouls, witches and vampires, pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns, children running from door to door shouting, “trick-or treat!” -- these are the modern images associated with Halloween. It’s a yearly, North American tradition where people of all ages dress up and head out to collect bags of candy or attend spooky costume parties. Modern 20th century traditions, however, are a far cry from the original Celtic festival on which Halloween is based.

“Samhain” or All Hallowtide, was observed by the ancient Celts who lived in western and central Europe during the first millennium. For the Celts, Samhain marked the end of the season, began at sundown on October 31 and was associated with death and aspects of the supernatural. The Celts believed that the spirits of those who had died a year before roamed the night. Only by offering food, drink and sacrifices could these evil spirits be appeased.

The Celts were conquered by the Romans and they absorbed certain pagan traditions that were introduced into their own harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruits and trees. This may be where the custom of bobbing for apples originated. By 835 AD Samhain became All Saint’s Day and then All Soul’s Day, which was first observed in a French monastery in 998 AD.

Supernatural beings and evil spirits were incorporated into Halloween during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. British folklore added the mischievous or trickster aspect associated with Halloween because of their belief in fairies. People would dress up and imitate the “little people”, then go from house to house demanding handouts. If none were given the owners of the house would be “treated” with a practical joke. Food or milk were frequently left for the fairies so the homeowner would gain the blessings of the “good folk” in the coming year.

The “jack-o-lantern” originated from a Medieval British folk tale. The soul of a man named Jack O’Lantern wasn’t allowed into heaven or hell and condemned to wander the earth forever carrying his lantern. The very first jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips, however, not pumpkins.

In the 15th and 17th centuries thousands of women were accused of witchcraft. Thought to ride brooms, consort with the devil and keep black cats as their familiars, it didn’t take long for this supernatural aspect to be adopted as part of the Halloween tradition. October 31 changed from a night of mischief to one of fear and people were advised to stay home to avoid the goblins, demons and witches wandering the night.

Once the first settlers came to North America, attitudes toward Halloween varied widely. English Puritans rejected the tradition as Pagan. Less strict British colonists who settled in Virginia and Maryland revived Halloween traditions, as did the Irish, who were descendants of the Celts. By the late 19th century many of the original traditions had been lost or discarded and Halloween became nothing more than a festive night for children to play pranks and collect treats.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s acts of vandalism increased on Halloween night. In Detroit people began referring to October 31st not as Halloween, but Devil’s Night. Entire blocks of the city were razed by fires. Scores of police now patrol the streets on Devil’s Night to keep revellers safe.

Trick or treating also declined in the same decade due to rumors that candy was being poisoned or that razor blades were being inserted into apples. Panicked parents went out trick-or-treating with their children on Halloween night or organized community or neighborhood costume parties. This “tampering” scare lasted only a few years. Organized parties remain a popular option however, particularly if the weather turns too cold for trick-or-treating.

In the last decade Halloween has become an increasingly popular night with adults. Many cities across the US and Canada celebrate October 31 in colorful and spooky ways. Bars, hotels and other night-spots host costume parties, contests, dances and other Halloween-themed festivities. Costumes for children and adults are becoming more inventive and elaborate, many of them based on favorite TV, movie or comic book characters. Candy companies and costume shops claim that Halloween is their busiest time of the year!

In other parts of the world, like Mexico, October 31 is known as the Day of the Dead. Homes are decorated with skeletons and offerings made to wandering spirits. Graves of relatives are lovingly attended to by planting flowers or leaving toys or other items the deceased enjoyed while alive.

All Hallow’s Eve, All Soul’s Day, The Day of the Dead, -- October 31 is recognised as a special time all over the world and brings with it ages-old superstitions, traditions and significance.