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Halloween: Origins and Evolution of the Spookiest Day of the Year

Lilith holds bachelor's degrees in anthropology and history. She enjoys exploring customs and traditions through research and writing.

This image is an artistic depiction of an ancient Samhain celebration.

This image is an artistic depiction of an ancient Samhain celebration.

Celebrating the Celtic New Year

Pronounced somewhat like “sau-win,” Samhain was a multi-day fete celebrated during the Iron Age (500 BCE–332 BCE) by the Celts, who occupied much of central and northern Europe at the time. This ancient shindig closed out the summer and launched the Celtic new year. Celtic folk ascertained that at this particular time (October 31st–November 1st), the fabric between their world and that of another more supernatural plane of existence was at its thinnest.

From Samhain to Trick-or-Treat and Beyond

Naturally, the festivities of Samhain derived from this belief. For instance, the momentarily strengthened connection to the otherworld spurred the Celtic tradition of fortune-telling. More concrete and practical actions were also taken to plan for the times ahead.

To ensure their survival through the oncoming, often brutal winters, Celts sacrificed crops and animals to the spirits. Additional measures, such as burning large bonfires and leaving out offerings, were taken in order to ward off evil and mischievous beings. Yes, the “offerings” approach is akin to our modern practice, in which some of us try to prevent a barrage of sugar-doused, costumed children from ringing our doorbells on October 31st by placing enormous, candy-filled bowls in front of our homes.

Pranks and tricks were also common during Samhain, but Celts shrugged off accountability for any impish acts, instead of blaming any misbehaviors upon fairies and spirits. Those who feared being punked by the aforementioned creatures dressed in costumes, usually of animals or beasts, to beguile the ghouls and specters. This particular custom clearly had some staying power—Americans spent $3.2 billion dollars on Halloween costumes in 2019.

The Evolution of Halloween

Here we go; let’s hit the highlights of said evolution. First, we have the pre-first-century festival of Samhain, the source for so many of our continued spooky traditions. Then, during the first century, the Romans conquered the Celts, consequently merging the Celtic Samhain with the Roman festivals of Feralia (honoring the dead) and another that celebrated Pomona, the goddess of fruit. The latter celebration may be the genesis of the spooky-season classic of bobbing for apples.

All Martyrs' Day was celebrated during the Middle Ages.

All Martyrs' Day was celebrated during the Middle Ages.

All Martyrs' Day, All Souls’ Day, and All Hallows Eve

In 609 CE, the Catholic feast of All Martyrs' Day (in reverence of, well . . . all Christian martyrs) was established on May 13th but was moved to November 1st by Pope Gregory III some 100 years later, consequently engendering the merging of this religious observance with that of other death-honoring autumnal festivities.

Another few hundred years later, the church deemed November 2nd All Souls’ Day, again attempting to rebrand a pagan tradition as a Christian, faith-based holiday. Finally, the spooky trinity of All Hallows Eve (a.k.a. Halloween—October 31st), All Hallows’ Day (a.k.a. All Martyrs' Day, a.k.a. All Saint’s Day—November 1st), and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).

As so many traditions tend to do, the observance of Halloween followed the many European immigrants who arrived in North America at the end of the 1500s. During the 1800s, Irish settlers, many of whom were unceremoniously shoved towards the New World by the consequences of the notorious potato famine, introduced America to pumpkin carving.

Stingy Jack and the Origin of Jack-o-Lanterns

Interestingly, turnips were the veggies that originally fell victim to this artful butchery. Why? Well, once upon a time, it is rumored that there was a man called Stingy Jack who snubbed the devil when it came to paying for a drink and managed to get himself barred from both Heaven and Hell, leaving him to eternally wander Earth wreaking havoc. Turnips with eerily-etched visages were placed outside of homes to frighten Jack away. As pumpkins began to replace turnips, “Jack-o-lanterns” emerged.

This is an artist's depiction of Stingy Jack.

This is an artist's depiction of Stingy Jack.

The Commercialization of Halloween

In the early 1900s, the commercialization of Halloween began. Simple, paper-based costumes were sold for one-time use in what would become the standard colors of the holiday (orange, black, and yellow). 1911 saw the first documented instance of trick-or-treating. The Samhain tradition of providing offerings to thwart the evil intentions of spirits was finally translated into dispensing coins, fruit, nuts, small toys, and candy to mollify tiny ghouls and witches.

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By the 1930s, Halloween was known as being a time of destruction and violence—so much so that some cities planned to ban the holiday. Instead, community-based trick-or-treating, carnivals, parades, and other neighborhood activities mediated the excessive pranking.

This is a photograph taken on Halloween in the 1920s.

This is a photograph taken on Halloween in the 1920s.

Early Marketing of Halloween

There was a drastic dip in Halloween tradition as World War II erupted. Sugar was heavily rationed, so there was less candy to dispense to the costumed masses. With the baby boom, trick-or-treating was revived, and candy companies maximized their earnings by creating Halloween-themed ads in addition to their regular marketing. This resulted in candy replacing most of the other goodies that were once dispensed to trick-or-treaters.

This is an artist's depiction of Halloween in the 1950s.

This is an artist's depiction of Halloween in the 1950s.

Halloween in America 1950s–1970s

By the '50s, Halloween had adopted a more commercial look and feel based on popular culture (as seen on television, heard on the radio, or read about in books and magazines). Kids donned the costumes of their favorite prime-time cowboy or cartoon character rather than dressing as more traditional characters like the white-bedsheet ghost.

During the 1970s, terror became increasingly associated with the holiday because of urban legends and news reports that sparked a wave of poisoned-candy paranoia and later due to the iconic John Carpenter film, Halloween.

This is an advertisement from the 1970s.

This is an advertisement from the 1970s.

Modern Halloween

Further trends surfaced during the next thirty years. The kids-only affair that Halloween had once been was no more; growing concerns over safety (hello, trunk-or-treats) prompted a spike in chaperoning. The holiday, in general, became more adult and pet-oriented (social media, anyone?). As for the treats, bite-sized candy became gradually larger and worries over peanut-based candies increased.

As for the costumes, pop culture remained heavily influential, but political figures, as well as all things politically correct, began to prevail. Oh, and Halloween in and of itself became a booming business, with décor becoming ever more excessive and grandiose (yes, even in comparison to Christmas).



Bonus Factoids About Halloween

That wraps up a fairly concise peek of an Iron-Age tradition turned social media trend. As a treat, here are a few more fun facts about Halloween:

  • The pathological fear of Halloween is called samhainophobia.
  • Spy a spider on October 31st? An old tradition says it may be a loved one looking out for you beyond the grave.
  • The infamous mask worn by the slasher in Halloween was almost a clown mask. If it had been, it would have been a sinister omen, considering that the serial killer John Wayne Gacy (a.k.a. the killer clown) was captured less than two months following the release of the film.
  • Kids are more likely to misbehave on the spookiest of nights due to “deindividuation.” Basically, a group of costumed, pre-adolescents will not think as much about the consequences of their actions as a group. Therefore, they are more likely to do things that they would not usually attempt alone (like steal candy or prank an unassuming fellow ghoul).

Want more deets on the spookiest day of the year? Check out the sources below!


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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