We all know about Halloween and the custom of trick or treating on the night of October 31st. But what is Halloween all about? Just why is it celebrated?
What are the origins of Halloween where we dress up as ghouls and ghouls so that we can get some candy?
And just why have I even written about this holiday on a genealogy and family website anyway?
Halloween (Hallowe’en or All Hallow’s Evening) – October 31st
All Saints’ Day (All Hallows) – November 1st
All Souls’ Day – November 2nd
Credit: Miguel Angel Rodriguez Lopez
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When Did Halloween Start?
This holiday has its origins around 2,000 years ago and is thought to have originated from the Celts.
These people lived in what is now known as Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France.
Halloween through the ages
The Celtic festival of Samhain celebrated and paid homage to the dead on October 31st. The Celts believed that the dead would return to earth on Samhain.
They would offer sacrifices and light bonfires.
Villagers would disguise themselves in animal skins so that they could drive away phantom visitors.
There would also be tables laid out with food that would satisfy the unwelcome spirits.
Then in the Middle Ages, (5th to 15th Century), people would dress up as all sorts of ghoulish creatures such as demons and ghosts.
They would also perform antics in the exchange for both food and drink.
This custom was known as mumming or guising and is thought to be the modern-day equivalent of trick or treating.
The Arrival of Christianity
The 9th Century saw the arrival of Christianity into Celtic lands, and trick or treating blended with this new religion.
By 1000 A.D. November 2nd was designated as All Soul’s Day by the church.
This is a day to honor the dead. This was a celebration much similar to the Celtic festival where bonfires were lit and costumes were worn.
The traditions of Halloween
The poorer people of the community would go to the wealthier families and receive pastries that were called soul cakes.
These were given in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowner’s dead relatives.
This custom was known as souling.
Jack-o’-lanterns were carried by the guisers. These lanterns represented the souls that were denied entry into both heaven and hell, (trapped souls).
And they were carved out of turnips by the Irish and Scottish.
Later Americans would use a pumpkin instead as this was much easier to carve out than a turnip.
The beginning of trick-or-treat
This custom was then taken up by children, who would go around the neighborhood asking for food.
So, you can clearly see that this was a precursor to the modern-day custom of trick or treating.
In both Ireland and Scotland young people would dress themselves up in costumes and would accept offerings from households.
In exchange for the offerings, they would sing, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform a trick.
This was performed instead of pledging to pray for the dead. Their treat would be either fruit, nuts, or even coins.
Influence of the United States
During the mid 19th Century a large number of immigrants came from Ireland. This influx was due to the potato famine of the 1840s.
By the early 20th Century the Irish and Scottish immigrants revived the customs of souling and guising.
The 1920s saw many acts of vandalism on thisholiday by young individuals. These tricks or pranks saw more than $100,000 worth of damage each year within the major metropolitan areas.
This even carried on during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The word trick meant threat if no treat was given by the homeowner.
It is believed that these acts of vandalism were stopped by organizing community-based trick or treating.
However, with the outbreak of World War II children had to stop visiting households as sugar rationing was introduced.
With the conclusion of the war trick or treating resumed and it quickly became popular and widespread throughout the United States. Candy companies capitalized on this holiday.
There is an estimated $6 billion spent on Halloween each year. This makes it the nation’s second largest commercial holiday.
The Three Days of Halloween
I have mentioned the origins of Halloween and how it has spread across America to become the second most popular of the holidays.
But what has Halloween got to do with family you may be asking?
I will come to that shortly but first I will explain the three days of this period.
Where did the name Halloween come from?
Halloween or Hallowe’en is a contraction of All Hallow’s Evening. It is also known as Allhalloween, All Hallow’s Eve, or All Saint’s Eve.
It is celebrated on October 31st and is the eve before All Hallows’ Day.
Halloween is the first of three days known as Allhallowtide. This is a time to remember the dead, who include saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the dearly departed.
The 3 days of Halloween
So, the first day of Allhallowtide is Halloween which I have already discussed.
The second day is All Saints’ Day (All Hallows) and is celebrated on November 1st by Christians, as well as by other denominations.
There is a fundamental belief that there is a spiritual connection between those in heaven and the living during this time.
This day gives thanks to the lives and deaths of saints.
Then on the third day, it is All Souls’ Day and is celebrated on November 2nd by the Christian community and is the last day of Allhallowtide.
It commemorates the dearly departed but is not subjected to just relatives.
For me this date is very much in my mind not only because of this day’s intentions but because my grandfather died on this day.
So, it is a very special time for me.
It should be a special time for anyone who has lost someone close to them, a family member or a friend.
What To Do On Halloween?
As parents, we will either buy or make costumes for our children to dress in. Then they will walk with them with maybe their friends as well while they door knock and collect candy.
After that when we get home they will eat their candy. They will most likely then get a belly ache as a result of eating way too much candy.
So, what do you do on Halloween?
If you don’t have kids then what do you do to celebrate this spooky time?
There are many other things that you can do on Halloween besides the usual trick or treating.
But what are they?
Well, you could decorate your home, your garage, your backyard or just one room of the house. Skeletons, cobwebs, skulls, and pumpkins could be dotted all over the house.
You could then play spooky sound effects and music to set the theme. Using red and black lights always gives a great ghostly ambiance to the party.
Some of your friends could even pop up from wherever and scare your other guests.
A scary movie could be played on your TV to add to the atmosphere. Halloween-inspired food and games could also be played.
Your guests could play the usual hide-and-seek game.
This may seem lame but as your friends are dressed up as scary creatures of the night this may surprise you when they jump up from nowhere and scare the living daylights out of you.
Traditional games to play
Other games to play include bobbing for apples, passing the apple, (just using your chin), or snapping an apple where an apple is suspended and you have to try and eat it without using your hands.
Another apple game is called apple paring where you have to use a knife to cut the longest and narrowest peel.
What else though besides throwing a Halloween party?
There are more things that you can do besides decorating your home and throwing a party though.
You may wish to check out haunted places that are around your city.
Just check online to see what places there are around you. Chances are that they will be throwing some ghostly tours and events.
Party with your friends or just watch a movie
You may also want to have a slumber party with your friends. Here you can tell spooky ghost stories with the lights off or low and use a flashlight for extra effect.
You can then challenge your friends to tell the scariest story.
If you want to just spend time alone or with your partner you may just want to watch scary movies together.
There will be plenty to choose from as the TV stations will be playing many of your favorite films.
Even if you do not want to dress up or throw a party you could greet the kids that show up at your door with candy.
If you live in a busy neighborhood just make sure that you have plenty of candy to last the night. You may also wish to dip into the treats yourself.
I know I would.
Go simple with your decorations
And if you do not want to go over the top with decorations you may just want to carve out a pumpkin or two.
Just visit your local store and purchase any one of the carving kits that they will have to offer.
These are pretty easy to do as the kits will come with stencils of either spooky scenes or characters.
You may also want to do carve out pumpkins with your kids as well. Just be careful with that carving knife.
My Final Thoughts
Halloween is not only the time of the year for kids but adults and families. We share Halloween with our kids by dressing them up as whatever character they wish to trick or treat in.
They may dress up as a ghost, demon, Spider-man, or Elsa. We will also watch them go from house to house collecting treats.
It is very much a family affair.
The following day All Saints’ Day can also be observed by families to celebrate the lives of saints.
And lastly, All Souls Day should be remembered by everyone who has not only lost someone close to them but also the recently deceased.
For me, these dates are important as I remember everyone that has come before me.
If it wasn’t for the connections that were made between my ancestors then I would not be here today.
As I have researched my own genealogy I have come to appreciate my ancestors and the lives that they lived. And I remember them during this time.
If you’re after some Halloween humor then head on over to the Genealogy Bank website. There you find a post entitled Our Ancestors’ Humor: Halloween Jokes.
Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak, this is a list of spooky jokes dating from 1846 through to 1900. These jokes were sourced from the historical newspaper that can be found at Genealogy Bank.
Thank You and Please Leave A Comment
I hope you enjoyed this article explaining what is Halloween all about and the origins of Halloween. If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below.
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26 thoughts on “What Is Halloween All About?”
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Nice and thorough explanation of Halloween.
I am from Croatia. It’s one of the Slavic countries. We also celebrate All Saints Day on the 1st November. Before the age of the Internet we never celebrated Halloween though. But we always had Carnival in February which looked very similar. People wearing masks, begging for treats. Now, more and more people are celebrating Halloween. When doing something, it’s good to be informed. Thanks.
Thank you for sharing. It is interesting what other countries do, there customs and traditions. We all come from somewhere so it’s good to know what our ancestors did from those countries.
I like learning about holidays and finding out what they mean. I also like sharing what I find out so that we can all learn about the true meaning behind these days.
This was great information on Halloween Owain! I had never really known where Halloween actually came from and was surprised that it has been around for over 2000 years! I really did think that Halloween was just a silly American holiday, and reason to celebrate. It is quite interesting that it originated from the Celts! Amazing how it evolved to just getting your kids fancy costumes, and sending them out to get as much candy as they can. I have never really done much on this particular holiday. It is nice to know the origins. Great information!
It is amazing that this holiday has its roots more than 2,000 years ago. It may or may not be surprising that traditions though have changed. So it is important I feel that we know the true meaning behind holidays such as Halloween. I am glad that I could educate and glad you enjoyed it.
Amazing! Such a rich history behind this highly commercialised festival. I like what you say about Halloween being a time to remember family members who have passed on. Do you know much about the Mexican Day of the Dead?
I, personally, didn’t do much for Halloween this year, but out of respect for the original rituals I will think about it more profoundly next year. Thank you so much!
Hi Eric. Yes I did come across the Mexican Day of the Dead when I was researching for this post. I would like to write a post about this event in the near future.
Sometimes the meaning of these holidays get lost and the commercialism takes over. So I am glad that I have shared with my readers the true origins of this day.
What a great history of halloween. Thanks for all the insights although Halloween or Samhain is one of my favourite times of the year. I remember sitting around a bonfire toasting in a new year with some friends one year and it really felt better to me to celebrate the seasons than the celebrations I have on 31st Jan. Thank you for this and for shining a light onto other festivals.
You’re most welcome Gail. I love learning about the history of these holidays and their true origins. It can help you appreciate far more.
This is absolutely fascinating! I had absolutely no idea that the Celts started this tradition originally. We have always been told it was a purely American thing. I can’t wait to tell my other half about this, he’s Irish soe he’ll be well interested!
Thanks for enlightening us!
It’s quite interesting that these special days have taken on a new meaning by Americans. Take Mother’s Day and Father’s Day For example. Both have origins that date back centuries, yet they have become quite commercialised. America’s retailers seem to profit quite nicely from these special days.
Your husband may be interested in this Irish Collection of Resources to help him track his Irish ancestry.
Great article! I new only barely how halloween came to life, I didn’t know that it originated from the Celts. I live in Norway, and here halloween is a pretty new feast day. I think we have copied it from USA, and I every year the day only get’s wilder and wilder. I feel like here in Norway, it has become more like a party day for adults then it has become a sugar gathering day for kids. Maybe it feels like this because I live in the city 🙂
Thanks for this “today I learned” article!
Thank you for sharing what happens on this day in Norway. Makes me wonder what other countries have adopted this holiday as well.
I think this article is fascinating it teaches the real life truth about one of our, in my opinion paganistic tradition ,how we adopted it as americans and are passing it on to our children. I am trying to get away from all of these pagan holidays . everybody has their own right to celebrate what ever they want . I would love to sit at home with a nice cup of green tea and my laptop.. awesome article..
It is interesting how these special days and occasions have origins that date back centuries. It’s also interesting how they evolve and that we still celebrate them to this day. Glad you enjoyed this article.
Thanks for this informative article on the history of Halloween.
I certainly didn’t know its origins were Celtic! It’s amazing how it has changed over the centuries. The meanings and its symbolism have change as well.
I love Halloween with trick or treating with the kids. It’s nice to meet the neighborhood kids and families and all the parties are so much fun. Who doesn’t like a costume party?
Glad that you liked this article. I like the costumes that go with Halloween. But call me old fashioned or whatever, but I prefer the costumes to be scary ones, not princesses and fairies, etc. that’s not Halloween for me.
Does really trick or treat game stopped Vandalism? I seriously did not know that.By the way you mentioned Halloween is second largest commercial holiday. which one is the first ?
It did stop the vandalism, what with doing damage to buildings, etc. But you do see nowadays kids throwing eggs and causing other mischief. But I guess there is always the minority that will do this sort of stuff.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are also the other big money makers, with Christmas being number one.
Interesting post. I’d say my knowledge about the subject has increased quite a bit after finding your post. I found the terminology very interesting……soul cakes for example. That also makes me wonder what kind of pastries these “soul cakes” were (I think I may be getting carried away haha!). Anyways, thanks for sharing. Cheers!
I am glad that that you learned something. I was always feel good when I have learned something like. I like learning about the origins of special events, customs, and so on.
This is really interesting. I actually didn’t know much about the origins of Halloween and it’s nice to see an account for it that doesn’t really have a negative spin as some current religious groups tend to paint it in the light of devil worship. I have always loved Halloween..a day when everything gets turned upside down. Children are allowed to go at past dark, to take candy from strangers, to knock on strangers’ doors and we can all dress up as something we are not. Interesting link to our ancestors…this I had never thought of before. Thanks for posting this!
Not many people do know the origins to this ghoulish time so it was nice for people to learn about it from this post. I wanted to write about it as it does have some connection to our ancestors.
Hello Owain, your articles have always fascinated me because of how you go about writing the story line. What is Halloween all about is yet another interesting piece you have written. I love it and I couldn’t just stop. I always knew that Halloween has to do with the dead and some have the opinion that it is a fetish ceremony. But I guess, it is sort of because that is the culture and belief of the Celtics.
I had a vague idea about what Halloween was all about. It was good to educate myself while I was writing this post. And this time has some importance to me which I discussed in the post.