Halloween Traditions: Past and Present


Carving pumpkins is a huge deal in Halloween culture. But where exactly did the idea come from? (Photo in the public domain)

Halloween is a holiday loved by both children and adults worldwide. Many love it because of its unique traditions and general spooky atmosphere, but many do not know where these crazy traditions come from.

Where did Halloween even come from?

According to History, Halloween originally began as a Celtic festival because they believed that on October 31st the line between the human and spirit worlds was blurred. Ghosts were supposedly roaming the earth wreaking havoc on crops and causing general mischief.

In order to please these spirits, the Celts celebrated a festival called Samhain. During Samhain, Druids, also known as Celtic priests, lit giant bonfires where the townspeople would sacrifice animals and crops to appease Celtic deities. They would also wear animal heads and skins as costumes and tell each other’s fortunes. 

When the Romans conquered the Celtic in 43 A.D., a few Roman festivals were mixed in with Samhain. One of these festivals was Feralia, a day used to honor the dead. The other was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol was an apple which is a likely explanation for the common tradition of bobbing for apples.

Eventually, Halloween moved to America and evolved into the version of the holiday many know and love today.

A Day for Love?

Yes, Halloween is now known as a holiday to celebrate all things scary and supernatural. But according to Woman’s Day, Halloween originally had many matchmaking traditions attached to it. 

Halloween was a huge day for single women looking for husbands in the 19th century. These odd rituals were supposed to help a woman find her husband or at the very least, give her a piece of knowledge about him.

For example, in 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in a woman’s mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it. Women also ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg so they would dream about their future husbands.

Obviously, these odd ways of matchmaking are no longer a holiday tradition, but it is interesting to think about all the same. 

Trick or Treat?

Thinking about a tradition like trick-or-treating without any context does not make a lot of sense, but that’s why it was inspired by an age-old tradition.

The custom that contributed to trick-or-treating was due to a holiday called All Souls’ Day. On this day, poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. It was called “souling” and was later picked up by children who would go door to door asking for gifts such as food and money.

Meanwhile, in Ireland and Scotland children participated in a similar tradition called “guising”. The kids would go door to door dressed in costume and accepting offerings. They would sing a song, tell or joke, or some other kind of trick before collecting their treat.

Jack O’ Lanterns

Once again, jack O’ lanterns are a tradition that does not make any sense without context. But this age-old tradition started because of one man, Stingy Jack.

Now it is unlikely that the tale of Stingy Jack has any truth to it, but it cast fear into the hearts of Irish locals anyway. According to the legend, Stingy Jack tricked Satan into not sending him to hell, but Jack’s plan backfired when he eventually died and St. Peter would not take him to heaven. So, he is left wandering the earth with nothing but a carved turnip and ember blazing with hellfire for eternity.

According to History, Irish and Scottish people began carving their own versions of Jack’s lantern into turnips or potatoes. These lanterns were placed in windows to scare away Stingy Jack and any other wandering spirits. 

Eventually, immigrants brought the tradition to America. They soon found that pumpkins were the perfect fit for jack o’ lanterns and the rest is history.

Haunted Houses

Haunted houses are an easily explained Halloween tradition due to the nature of Samhain. However, the reason why these houses are so popular in America is not what many would expect.

Halloween was seen as a night to blow off steam with crazy pranks and general mischief. In 1879, about 200 boys in Kentucky stopped a train by laying a fake stuffed ‘body’ across the railroad tracks for a Halloween prank. Many people were not a fan of these pranks before, but the Great Depression in the 1930s really made people angry with the amount of property damage that was caused. So, communities came up with ways to distract the children from their destructive behaviors.

Haunted houses and other Halloween related events began popping up all over. Old pamphlets advised people to “hang old fur, strips of raw liver on walls, where one feels his way to dark steps,” and have “weird moans and howls come from dark corners” in order to create a “trail of terror.”

These early haunted houses were small events held in residential neighborhoods. Eventually, large corporations took on the idea, and now there are thousands of commercial haunted houses all over the world. 

Halloween is a huge deal all over the world and every country celebrates it differently. The traditions in America are full of history from all over the world and are centuries old. It is pretty incredible how every single aspect of the holiday has evolved from one small Celtic festival. 


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