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The History of Halloween

By: Encounter Staff

Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Halloween? How did a holiday where people dress up in costumes and go from house to house asking for candy come about?

20th century "witches," Photo Courtesy of

Halloween has been around for centuries. According to, “the tradition originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain [pronounced sow-in], when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts.” It was a day that marked the end of the summer and harvest seasons, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. The Celts celebrated Samhain on the night of October 31, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

Later on in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a day to honor all saints. All Saints Day became an annual celebration, and eventually incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before All Saints Day became known as All Hallow's Eve, and according to, “The name was eventually shortened to ‘Halloween,’ which we know and love to this day.”

Time went on and Halloween eventually made its way to America. As the beliefs of different European ethnic groups and Native Americans meshed, the distinct American version of Halloween began to emerge. Colonial festivities included telling ghost stories, fortune-telling and dancing around large bonfires.

The tradition of “trick-or-treating” actually originated in Europe. People would dress up as saints and go door-to-door reciting songs or bible verses in exchange for food and drink. Europeans brought this tradition of dressing up and performing in the streets to North America, and it quickly became problematic. According to, “Youngsters used Halloween as an opportunity to prank people, and those pranks were often destructive, causing expensive property damage. It was right around the Great Depression that these activities became known as trick-or-treating.”

Children would go to a house and give the homeowners a choice: trick or treat. Since no one wanted to be pranked, candy and other sweet treats were handed out. These treats could be anything from homemade popcorn balls to peppermints or lemon drops. During World War II, trick-or-treating became less common due to sugar rationing. However, after the war, the tradition came roaring back and now it is impossible to imagine a Halloween without flocks of costumed kids going door-to-door asking for candy.

Early Trick-or-Treaters, Photo Courtesy of

Around the same time period, Halloween became a community-centered holiday. Halloween parties became a regular occurrence, with town-wide costume parties becoming an annual form of entertainment. By the early 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and the destructive pranks, and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed at younger children.

Another Halloween tradition that came from Europe is the carving of pumpkins. Early Irish immigrants to the U.S. shared their tradition of making jack-o'-lanterns, which were based on an old folk tale from their culture. According to, “Jack was a blacksmith who had tricked the devil on several occasions. The story says that when Jack died, he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell. When the devil turned him away, he gave Jack a burning ember. Jack hollowed out a turnip to carry the ember and give him light.”

The Irish told this story every year and carved scary faces on turnips with a burning piece of coal inside, in order to scare away evil spirits. However, when the Irish came to America, they discovered that pumpkins were more readily available and made better jack-o'-lanterns than turnips. This activity has spanned all the way into today, where pumpkin-carving is a popular Halloween pastime. Some people carve faces, logos or characters into their pumpkins and set them on their doorsteps for all the trick-or-treaters to see on Halloween. For those who are confident enough in their abilities, pumpkin-carving contests are a popular way to participate in the activity on a whole new level.

In present day, Halloween is a major holiday celebrated widely across the United States. Americans spend an approximate $6 billion on Halloween every year, making it the second largest commercial holiday, after Christmas. People decorate their houses with spooky projections, inflatables and other decorations. Kids and parents alike dress up in costumes ranging anywhere from zombies to Pinkie Pie from “My Little Pony.” A University of St. Francis sophomore, Valerie Reyes, shared that, “My favorite part of the holiday is when the trick-or-treaters come to my house. I love seeing the smiles on their faces when I give them candy and I am always blown away by all of their creative costumes.”

There are costume parties, horror movie nights and so many other ways to spend this holiday. If Halloween wasn’t your favorite time of the year already, hopefully the origins of these traditions can help you to appreciate it a little more.

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