History and Origin of Halloween: Our Scary Holiday Beginnings

Updated on September 4, 2019
wilderness profile image

Dan enjoys writing about the origins of the most popular holidays from around the world.

Painting by Daniel Maclise in 1833, entitled Snap Apple Night .  Inspired by a Halloween party attended in 1832.
Painting by Daniel Maclise in 1833, entitled Snap Apple Night . Inspired by a Halloween party attended in 1832. | Source

Ancient History of Halloween

Tracing the origin of Halloween is not easy. The roots of our scary holiday go back thousands of years, nearly to the time of Christ.

As a result of this, it is impossible to actually know exactly how it originated and the steps it went through to get to the modern traditions of parties, trick-or-treating, and the costume-filled celebrations we enjoy today.

Nevertheless, there are pretty clear indications of those roots if we follow what is known of the history of Halloween back through the centuries. It all began with the Celtic people of what is now Britain, Ireland, and France.

The Origin of Halloween

Ancient Celts celebrated a festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sah-wen) some 2000 years ago. This was the equivalent of our New Years day as the harvest season ended and the dark days of winter began. Interestingly, the Celtic day began at sundown; the concept of the new year beginning as nights increased in length makes sense in this context.

The festival continued over 3 days (at least as we figure "days") with many of the traditions and ideas we have come to loosely associate with Halloween. The celts believed that during the period between the ending of one year and beginning of the next the boundary between the living and dead blurred and the veil was lifted, allowing spirits to freely wander the earth. In particular, those that had died during the year were now able to enter the land of the dead where they belonged.

Druids, the priesthood of the Celts, were able to commune with these spirits, resulting in a much better divination of what the new year would bring. Huge sacred bonfires were lit and all home fires put out; at the end of the festival, embers were carried back to the home to re-light the hearth fires there. The bonfires were very special, and lighting home hearth fires with their embers would certainly carry good fortune for the next year. Embers were often carried home in hollowed-out vegetables such as turnips, gourds or rutabagas (although much easier to carve, pumpkins were unknown).

Gifts of food were often set at the doorstep during the period to ward off the more malevolent spirits and help ancestors find their way. These gifts also kept the fairies happy and prevented mischief from them. Costumes of animal skins or heads were often worn at night to confuse the "bad" spirits and keep them at bay.

As the Roman influence spread through Europe, additional traditions entered the scene as well. The celebration of Feralia, commemorating the dead near the end of October, mixed well with Samhain. Pomona—goddess of fruit trees and in particular the apple—brought her own concepts and customs that fit in as well with the end of the harvest.

During this period the Celts of the day also adopted the Gregorian calendar, and the date of Samhain was fixed at October 31st, where it has remained to this day. The only real change has been to shorten it to one day rather than three, and to modify the "day" - remember, the Celts would have considered Nov. 1 as the actual "day" while we now consider it to be Oct. 31st.

Cats and the Black Death

Europeans of the middle ages had a definite fear of cats in general and particularly black cats. Primarily nocturnal, hunters to the core, they make humans uncomfortable. Often associated with witchcraft, cats are obviously evil. Cats often "see" things that aren't there, giving rise to the idea that they are seeing spirits and adding evidence to the known fact that they are evil.

Often tortured and killed along with their witch owners, cats were also routinely hunted down and killed with the result that the cat population was decimated during the middle ages. Cats are a major force in controlling the rat population; rats that carry fleas that carry Black Death.

It is very likely that humanity contributed in a very real way to the spread of the Black Death in the middle ages, all out of an irrational fear of a harmless animal we keep as pets today and almost revere on Halloween.

The Church and Halloween

Christianity began to spread across Europe, but there was a problem. The Celts stubbornly held to their Pagan beliefs, listening more to the Druid priesthood than to the church, and were not converting to Christianity in the numbers required. Something had to be done.

Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon on May 13, 609 and the anniversary of that day was declared to be in remembrance of the churches martyrs; it became "All Saints Day." In the next century, Pope Gregory III took note of the problem with Celts and changed the date of celebration to Nov. 1st and the evening prior to All Saints Day became "Hallow's Eve." In the 10th century Abbot Odela added Nov. 2nd as "All Souls Day" and the transformation was complete.

To understand the "why" and "how" of these changes we need to realize that the church was adamant about "conquering," or converting, the Celts. Holidays and celebrations have always been important to people all over the world; they are a large part of what makes our culture. It is far easier if the conquered subjects take up the culture of the conquerors voluntarily - by manipulating the date of All Saints Day and creating a couple of additional holidays the church hoped to bring the Celts more in line. The dates match, the underlying theme of the dead match - what more could be asked?

Unsurprisingly, the concept worked, and the two holidays meshed. All too well; few Christians today have a real celebration, in the sense of a party, on any of these days. The Christian celebration of All Hallows Eve has been completely submerged into the secular ideas of the day. Similar holidays can be seen in both Christmas and in Easter as both have picked up pagan rituals, although not to the extent Halloween has.

The church had other influences, too. Early Hebrew did not have the word "witch"; the term was introduced into the bible during translation. A more appropriate term today might be "fortune teller" (divination) or "medium" (communing with dead spirits), both of which were natural, everyday occurrences to the Druids. As both were abominations to the church, the practice was evil and forbidden. As the church expanded its idea of what witches were and what they did, it seems likely that the Halloween custom of bad, evil witches came from the church. A strange thing to see in a religious observation of All Hallows Eve, but when cultures mesh and grow into each other things like that happen.

Indirectly, the church may have given rise to the horrors of black cats, particularly on Halloween night. The pagan religions of Europe often tied directly to nature and animals, including cats. Enter the church, striving to vilify those religions, and stir into the mix that cats are sneaky carnivores and black ones are especially frightening as they disappear into the night. Consider that cats, especially black ones, are the natural companion of witches and it seems reasonable that the church at least played a part of making black cats a symbol of Halloween.

Halloween Party

Halloween parties continue to gain in popularity
Halloween parties continue to gain in popularity | Source

Divination and Halloween

This practice began with Druids, communing with spirits to determine what the next year would hold.

Later years found young women dropping apple peels on the floor to discover who their life's love would be, or throwing hazelnuts into the fireplace. Apple peels were tossed over their shoulder, hoping that they would land in the form of their love's initials. Or each hazelnut was named with a potential suitor and the one that burned rather than exploding or popping would become the girl's future husband. Egg yolks floating in water might give a hint as to the future. There were lots of ways to divine what might happen down the road.

Later History of Halloween

Early US population had very little to do with Halloween; the Puritans certainly would have had nothing to do with such an abomination, and the Protestants (the majority of early immigrants) had nearly stamped it out in Europe.

Most of the celebrations in the early years were in Maryland and the southern states. "Play Parties" were an annual thing—public events to celebrate the harvest. People got together to share stories of the dead, dance and sing, and tell ghost stories. Mischief was accepted as part and parcel of the event. These fall ceremonies and celebrations were fairly common by the middle of the 1800s but were not formally a part of Halloween. Not yet.

The mid-1800s, however, saw a large influx of Irish immigrants, and the Halloween custom had lived on in the land of Samhain. The Irish immigrants brought the custom with them and people, always ready for a party, accepted it, and expanded on it. Combining the customs from various cultures as well as what was already present in American, people began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food.

By the end of the century, the celebrations and parties were common enough that formal efforts began to be made to promote it into a family and community event. Parties for adults and children alike were enjoyed by all and Halloween lost what little was left of it's superstitious and religious origins.

As the twentieth century progress into the '20s and '30s, the custom had grown into a secular, community affair, with costumes and parades, but vandalism began to raise it's head as well. Community leaders worked on this, and by the 1950s it was pretty well curbed, and Halloween gained in popularity as a result. Increasing populations had forced the parties from community centers into homes and classrooms and Trick Or Treating was accepted nearly everywhere.

The last few decades have seen an enormous growth in the economics of Halloween; it is second only to Christmas in its ability to generate income for businesses. Halloween costume parties are becoming ever more popular, and those scary costumes can be astronomical in their price. Candy sales are huge, and even more is being spent on children's parties.

"Souling," or "Guising"—Predecessor to Trick or Treat


Long ago, the poor would go door to door on Nov. 1st, asking for "soul cakes" in return for a promise to pray for the giver's dead relatives on Nov. 2nd, All Soul's Day. The practice was so popular that it was even referenced in Shakespeare's comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Deeper roots probably go even further back to the practice on Samhain of putting food offerings on the doorstep at night to placate the dead that were roaming the night then.


Guising was a similar practice, where children dressed in costume visited homes asking for coins, fruits, or cakes. Carrying scooped out turnips with candles in them for lanterns this practice is much closer to the modern trick or treating.

Guising is recorded in 1895 in Scotland and in North America in 1911 when the newspaper in Kingston, Ontario mentions children guising around the neighborhood.

Both of these practices probably had a part in developing Trick or Treating, and both probably come from the older Celtic activities, but in any case the practice had become commonplace in America by the mid-1900s. It spread back to Britain in the 1980s, not always with the blessings of the powers-that-be. Although the very early versions often did offer a real choice between Trick and Treat, it has become more just Treat, without any possibility of the Trick. Not to say that Halloween mischief doesn't happen, but it is no longer a part of the Trick or Treat custom.

Going "Guising"

You can't be too little to trick or treat!
You can't be too little to trick or treat! | Source
Watch out, bad guys - Spiderman will "trick" you!
Watch out, bad guys - Spiderman will "trick" you! | Source

Legend of the Jack-O-Lantern

One of the more amusing tales from the history of Halloween is the legend of how the jack-o-lantern came to be.

As the story has it, Ireland (where else?) was once home to a man named Jack O'Lantern. Now, Jack was not one of mankind's best examples; he was a drunkard, lewd, and a petty thief. Not surprisingly, Jack got into an argument with the devil one day and somehow convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin. Quick as a wink, Jack snatched up the coin and put it into his pocket. The same pocket that held a cross; the devil couldn't change back or get out! After much back and forth, Jack finally released the devil after extracting a promise that the devil would leave him alone for the next year.

A year went by, and the devil once more came after Jack, only to be tricked into climbing a tree. Quickly, Jack carved a cross into the trunk of the tree, again trapping the devil. This time the price of freedom was a promise to never take Jack into Hell

Eventually, Jack died but, being the man he was, never stood a chance of entering heaven. Poor Jack visited the devil, asking him to relent on his promise and let Jack into Hell but the devil refused. Jack was forced back out of Hell, but on leaving the devil flipped him an eternal coal from the fires of hell, and even today Jack still roams Ireland, carrying that coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way.

And that's where Jack O Lanterns come from.


From the scary...
From the scary... | Source
To the humorous, jack-o-lanterns are always fun.
To the humorous, jack-o-lanterns are always fun. | Source

© 2012 Dan Harmon


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Sillypineapple profile image


      6 years ago from Georgia

      You really did a great job on this article! I really enjoyed reading it, especially with Halloween coming up so soon!

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      I LOVE the story of good old Jack!

    • wilderness profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Harmon 

      6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Thank you, gm. It was a fascinating bit of research not only in the very beginnings with the celts and druids, but in the slower formation of the customs we use in the US today. The story of Jack O'Lantern I found particularly amusing.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      This was quite a DARKLY fascinating history and synopsis of Halloween. Halloween is one of our scariestly fun holidays. It is nice that someone else is interested in THE DARK SIDE besides myself. I was thoroughly entranced by this hub!

    • shai77 profile image


      7 years ago

      Fascinating hub. One of the best, most detailed explanations of Halloween I've seen on hubpages so far. Great work, thanks for sharing!

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev G 

      7 years ago from Wales, UK

      Yes, it's sort of strange that we don't celebrate it more in the UK. There's a small amount of trick-or-treating and schools discos. We have always decorated our front window with a Jack o' Lantern, some spooky witchy artifacts and the darkest tarot cards but the number of kids that come for sweeties are getting fewer each year. Being of a pagan persuasion, it has slightly more meaning for me, but I don't make a big thing of it.

      Fascinating history and I learnt a few things reading this.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thanks for so much history! (Had never heard of any of it!!! I think it's because I'm more Welsh than Irish- ahem ) And great pictures. Some of them are just so cute (that little pink girl CAN'T be any part of the story can she?). We don't have Halloween here in Italy though the Pagans are responsible for lots of holidays and traditions! (We have a public holiday to celebrate the Day of The Dead and the Day of Saints and people take flowers to the graves of their loved ones and then go and have a great lunch somewhere.) No witches or Lanterns. Tweeting this and voting too.

    • Janis Goad profile image

      Janis Goad 

      7 years ago

      Trick or treating is changing in Canada--parents take their children to the mall before it gets dark. Misses the point somehow, and lacks the feeling of community kids got walking through the neighbourhood at night asking for treats, and being welcomed. I think people are afraid of poisoned treats and car or firecracker accidents at night.

      I love the story of the Jack O"Lantern.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judi Brown 

      7 years ago from UK

      Celebrating Halloween with trick-or-treating is a fairly new phenomenon in the UK. This is a fascinating look at the history, really enjoyed it.

    • Natashalh profile image


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      I love Halloween! When it feels like fall out... Last year I couldn't celebrate in any way because I was in class all night. Hopefully this year I can at least be home to hand out candy or something.

      I've never heard the story of Jack - that's pretty neat!

    • wilderness profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Harmon 

      7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      I never thought of it that way, but you're right. Samhain was a day of partying and fun, but there was a definite undercurrent of fear and a large one at that. Malevolent spirits and fairies roamed the earth, causing endless troubles for innocent people. Winter was upon them, always with the fear and knowledge that spring would never come for many. It was dark, and getting darker every day with all the evil and unseen dangers that brings.

      Later thought brought witches and black cats to add more fear and concern as superstition continued to grow.

      And yet...today we poke fun at these ideas, laughing with our children as they pretend to be these same ghosts, goblins and witches. Maybe we have advanced a little.

      Yes, spiderman was pretty fearsome himself that year, wasn't he? Especially a little later in the night, with a bag full of candy LOL.

    • profile image

      Lee Harmon 

      7 years ago

      Great article! I've always felt that Halloween presents a wonderful example of mankind's growth. We have taken a superstitious, frightening day and transformed it into a fun celebration for little kids. Impressive!

      Spiderman looks terrifying, btw.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, holidappy.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)