How Did Halloween Start?

Every year you buy the costumes, the decorations, and the candy. But have you ever stopped to think about Halloween actually began? While you may actually be wondering how did Halloween start, you are more than likely fielding questions about it from an inquiring child as well.

The history of Halloween dates back 2,000 years ago.  While scholars have different theories on how Halloween began, the most popular theory is that it began as the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain marked the end of the year in present day Ireland. The new year began November 1. The Celtic people believed that the eve before New Years was a time when the living and dead could commingle, much like El Dia del Muerto (Day of the Dead) celebrations in Mexico.  Unlike the theme of reuniting loved ones like El Dia del Muerto, the Celts believed that this time when then the boundary between life and the afterlife provided a way to predict the future. The Celtic people would create large bonfires to celebrate the end of the harvest and dress in costumes to celebrate and attempt to predict the future.

How Did Halloween Start?

As Christianity spread into Celtic lands, the church transformed the celebration of Samhain into All Souls Day, a day to honor the dead, but it was celebrated much the same with bonfires and dressing up as saints, angels, and devils.  All Souls Day was celebrated on November 2 because November 1 was already taken. November 1 is All Saints Day was also referred to as All Hallows day, thus the evening before was referred to as All Hallows Eve.

As colonists from all over Europe began moving to America, their customs and beliefs, along with those of the Native Americans, merged to create a distinctly American version of Halloween.  Halloween was a celebration of the harvest where people would share stories about the dead, tell fortunes, dance, and sing. Telling stories eventually morphed into ghost stories and pranks.

During the Great Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, millions of Irish people with Celtic heritage immigrated to the United States which popularized the tradition of Halloween in a way that cemented the celebration in American culture.  America has always been a melting pot, and Halloween was a celebration literally created from the merging of customs and a way to bring together neighbors to celebrate the harvest.

How Did Halloween Start?

So, now we know how Halloween started, but what about the traditions associated with Halloween?

Why do we wear costumes?

How Did Halloween Start?

As previously mentioned, the Celts wore costumes to celebrate Samhain, but we did not thoroughly explain why people wore costumes.  Since Samhain was the day when the barrier between the current world and the afterlife was thought to be virtually non-existent, people would wear masks at night so that ghosts would not recognize them as living beings.  

As people stopped believing that ghosts actually visit on Halloween, people continued to dress up for the holiday that is now Halloween, but dressing up like ghosts was no longer required.  People started to branch out with their costume choices and today as Halloween has become more and more commercialized, you can basically dress as anything you want!

Read More: 4 DIY Halloween Costumes You’ll Love

How did trick or treating begin? 

How Did Halloween Start?

Children did not start off saying ‘trick or treat’ as part of the Halloween celebrations.  It is believed that parents gave their children treats in an effort to discourage any tricks on Halloween.  By the late 1800s, the Halloween festivals were becoming less about the celebration of the harvest and more about the tricks.  Parents and town leaders felt things were getting out of hand, so they allied themselves to promote the idea of dressing up and trick or treating as safer alternatives to the dangerous pranks that were occurring. 

In the early 1900s, communities decided that distributing candy was a cheap and easy way for the entire community to take part in the celebration, while also discouraging tricks from being played since everyone was busy collecting candy.

During Samhain, the families would place bowls of food outside their houses to keep the ghosts happy.  Later when All Saints Day was celebrated, those less fortunate than others would knock on doors on All Saints Day and beg for food.  Families would give the children ‘soul cakes’ in return that the children prayed for the family’s deceased relatives. These traditions most likely translated to the American tradition of actually going door to door asking for candy.  

Read More: Tips For Having A Safe and Happy Halloween

Why are black and orange the colors of Halloween?

How Did Halloween Start?

This answer may be obvious, but just in case, here is the short and sweet answer.  Black represented death and orange symbolizes the harvest. During the twentieth century when Halloween became more commercialized and tame, purple was introduced as a way to keep the holiday more child-friendly.

Why do we carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns?

How Did Halloween Start?

Pumpkins are native to North America and they were readily available.  While this makes them a symbol of the harvest and a likely decoration for Autumn Festivals, people did not randomly decide to start carving scary faces into them.  The tradition was carried over from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a savory character who tricked the devil one too many times. Neither God nor the devil wanted to claim Jack Stingy which meant he was not allowed into heaven or hell. He was forced to roam the earth at night with a lantern made out of a turnip with a piece of coal inside.  

Read More: The Best Free Pumpkin Carving Stencils For Halloween.

Many British people believed in some version of the Jack Stingy story and in order to ward off Stingy Jack and other ghoulish figures, they would carve scary faces into beets, turnips, and potatoes and place a piece of coal inside.  Once these immigrants arrived in the land of pumpkins, they used the abundant fruit to make their Jack of the Lantern or aptly named Jack O’Lantern.

How Did Halloween Start?

Carving pumpkins during Halloween in America became so popular that in the 1960s, farmers created a version of the pumpkin that was specifically meant for carving versus eating.  

Why do we associate candy corn with Halloween?

How Did Halloween Start?

There are two kinds of people in this world.  The people who love candy corn, and the people who hate it.  No matter how you feel about the sugary sweet candy, there is no denying that it is a Halloween staple.  The candy was originally created in the 1880s and was primarily associated with autumn and the celebration of the fall harvest.  It was originally marketed as a candy that looked like chicken feed because corn was not considered people food until after World War I.  It was not until the 1950s that candy corn became a Halloween staple which is when people started handing out individually wrapped candies to trick or treaters.

Why are witches a symbol of Halloween?

How Did Halloween Start?

These women were basically women who healed by medicine and other remedies.  The name ‘witch’ is derived from a word that means ‘Wise One’. The church was threatened by these women and viewed the healing as evil and pagan.  Thus, the women were forced to practice underground but would meet twice a year when the seasons changed, one of those times being October 31st.

What is with the Spiders, Bats, and Black Cats?

How Did Halloween Start?

The bonfires of Samhain attracted insects and spiders, which in turn attracted bats.  Thus, spiders and bats continued to be associated with October 31st over the centuries.

Blacks cats were not necessarily associated with October 31st but were thought to be a jinx throughout the centuries.  During the middle ages, black cats were considered to be symbols of the Devil. Later, they were considered to be companions of witches and some even believed that witches could turn into black cats to avoid detection.

Are apples associated with Halloween or Fall?

How Did Halloween Start?

The answer is both.  Eventually, the Celtics were conquered by the Romans whose harvest celebration occurred later in October.  The second day of the Roman celebration honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees who was represented by an apple.  Since then, apples have also played a part in the autumn festivals.  

Originally, bobbing for apples was used for fortune telling. According to legend, the first person to pluck the apple from the water filled bucket without using their hands would be the first person to marry. While that is not the object of current day bobbing for apples, did you ever twist the stem of an apple while saying the alphabet? When the stem popped off, that was supposed to be the first letter of the person you married.  This game most likely derived from a tradition on Halloween when women would peel an apple into a continuous strip and then throw it over her shoulder. Whatever letter the skin landed in was to be the first letter in the name of her future husband.  

During the mid-twentieth century, candied apples were handed out as treats on Halloween and today are still an integral part of most fall festivals.

A “How did Halloween Start?’ Summary

Maybe your child asked you ‘How did Halloween begin?’.  So, you did what any modern day parent would do. You took out your phone, googled the question, and stumbled upon this article. Now that you have read it, you think, that is way too much information for my child so here is a quick summary:

This is how Halloween got started. People a long, long time ago in Ireland celebrated the end of summer and the harvest with a festival that marked the transition of seasons with a bonfire. Since this was a long time ago, they mistakenly thought the change of season meant dead people were closer on this night and that is where the ghosts and goblins associated with Halloween come from. The costumes and jack-o-lanterns helped scare away the ghosts and goblins.

Once the Irish immigrated to America, they brought bits and pieces of this celebration with them and when it mixed with the traditions of other immigrants and the Native Americans, Halloween became more of a community event where people told stories and performed pranks.  Eventually, the tricks got out of hand, so parents and community leaders made a push for the event to be more about the treats. Kids began going door to door to request treats from neighbors who were keen on giving treats instead of being subjected to a trick!

Thus, an Irish pagan turned religious holiday, ended up being commercialized into a fun holiday that encourages communities to spend time together to celebrate the start of Autumn.

Halloween Today

How Did Halloween Start?

Today, Halloween is a multi-billion dollar industry, second only to Christmas.  Most people either live in a Halloween neighborhood that goes all out for the holiday or they do not, so they drive to a neighborhood that goes all out.  Many neighbors compete to outdo the others with the best decorations on the block.  

The American version is now being celebrated in places like Canada, Great Britain, & Australia. Many Western European nations celebrate Halloween but without the trick or treating, concentrating on the costumes and parties.  

No matter how you choose to celebrate, it is fun to go against the grain for one day.  Parents actually encourage their kids to be someone else and go to strangers doors to ask for candy. Think about that! The neighborhoods who go all out for Halloween have an endearing quality that encourages neighbors to come out and get to know each other.  Halloween is more than scary decorations, costumes, and candy. Halloween is about community and the most precious members of our communities, the children.  

There are more lessons about How Halloween Started that you can teach your children. Read this article about Five Halloween Lessons You Can Teach At Home.

How Did Halloween Start?

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Jen Campbell Boles
Jen Campbell Boles
Jen is a culture-loving twin mom, obsessed with finding flight deals that dictate where her family will explore next! She started traveling internationally with her twins before they turned two and wants to give other families the confidence to travel far with their children. She is the owner and Chief Exploration Officer at Explore More Family Travel. When she's not planning a fabulous vacation, you can find her doing all the mom things like car pick up lines, cheering on the sidelines, and visiting local playgrounds.