Halloween History and Traditions

Do you know the story behind the spook and thrill October 31 brings? You may be aware that Halloween is an annual tradition everyone celebrates through costume parties, fun games, trick-or-treating, entering haunted houses and sharing scary stories but you may be surprised that it’s actually religion, paganism and superstitions rolled into one event.


The Origin

It originated from the Celtic culture of Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe more than 2000 years ago. The Celts used to have a festival called Samhain, a celebration of harvest before their new year begins on November 1. Since the date also marked the beginning of the winter’s cold weather and longer nights, it was associated with death. On October 31, they believed the deceased would come back to earth to damage their harvested crops, inflict sickness and play evil tricks to people. Because of this daunting superstition, they would wear scary costumes, put on masks and make sacred bonfires to drive away the spirits. Some also left out treats to appease them.

During the conquest of the Roman empire over Europe, the Catholic church combined two of their holidays with this tradition to Christianize the Celts. The missionaries already considered them as pagans who needed spiritual guidance. November 1 and 2 were declared as All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively. The night before November 1 was called All Hallows Eve but eventually, it was shortened to Halloween. Since some Celts continued to firmly practice their customs on this day, it may be the reason why it has been transmitted from the ancient to the present generation.

Trick or Treat

Aside from the historical information stated above, this can be traced to a Mid-European practice called souling. On All Saints Day, early Christian beggars would ask for a piece of cake from the villagers. In exchange, they would pray for the dead relatives of the donors the following day. At that time, it was believed that prayers can facilitate a soul’s entry to heaven.

Through media, trick-or-treating has spread around the globe. Currently, children wear awesome costumes and collect treats in their neighborhood on Halloween. However, there are still countries who don’t practice it like the way Europeans and Americans do. For example, in the Philippines, Filipinos prefer to visit the graves of their dead loved ones. In Japan, some make use of Halloween decors but they pay homage to the souls in August during Obon.

Pumpkins, Turnips and Jack-o-Lanterns

The famous Jack-o-Lantern is an Irish folklore about a drunkard, selfish man named Jack. When he passed away, he wasn’t admitted to heaven because of his misdeeds. He wasn’t welcomed in hell either because he once tricked Satan. So he hollowed a turnip, placed an ember in it and returned to earth without knowing where to go. It is supposed that until this time, he’s still roaming around with his lantern.

Carving of turnips was originally done in Scotland and Ireland. However, North Americans preferred to use pumpkin since they’re larger than turnips and readily available. It is said that pumpkin carving is still practiced to remember the souls in purgatory.

Apple Bobbing

This most popular Halloween game consists of a large basin of water with floating apples on it. The first person who can bite it with his teeth without using the hands is assumed as the next one to marry. In some cases, the organizers hang the apples on the string.

When the Romans dominated the Celtic area, they introduced apple as the symbol of Ponoma, the goddess of beauty and fertility. Remembering her in October too is most likely the reason why parties have apple games on Halloween.