When most of us think of Halloween, we think of costume parties, trick-or-treating, and a whole lot of candy. But have you ever wondered how all of those traditions came to be? Halloween's roots go a long way back in history and are quite a bit spookier than you may realize. Here's a quick primer on why we celebrate Halloween.
You already know that Halloween takes place on October 31, but here's something you might not know: The word literally means "hallowed evening," and was known to early European celebrators as All Hallows' Eve. All Hallows' Eve (October 31) and All Saints' Day (November 1) both paid homage to saints ("hallows" = saints). The name was eventually shortened to "Halloween."
As for why it's celebrated on October 31, the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, considered the earliest known root of Halloween, occurred on this day. It marked a pivotal time of year when seasons changed, but (more importantly) observers also believed the boundary between this world and the next became especially thin at this time, enabling them to connect with the dead. This belief is shared by some other cultures; a similar idea is mentioned around the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which also typically occurs in October and involves saying prayers for the dead.
Now, back to Samhain: This early pagan holiday involved a lot of ritualistic ceremonies to connect to spirits, as the Celts were polytheistic. While there isn't a lot of detail known about these celebrations, many believe the Celts celebrated in costume (granted, they were likely as simple as animal hides), enjoyed special feasts, and made lanterns by hollowing out gourds. Over time, as Christianity took over and the pagan undertones of the holiday were lessened, the basic traditions of the holiday remained a part of pop culture every year, they simply evolved and modernized.
The mystical rituals of earlier times evolved into more lighthearted fun and games. For example, the somewhat heavy concept of connecting to the dead was replaced with the more lighthearted idea of telling the future. Apple bobbing, for example, became popular as a fortune-telling game on All Hallows' Eve: Apples would be selected to represent all of a woman's suitors, and the guy—er, apple—she ended up biting into would supposedly represent her future husband. Another popular All Hallows' Eve ritual was mirror-gazing, as people hoped to catch a vision of their future by looking into the mirror. There are also reports of fortune-cookie-like favors being given out during earlier times. People wrote messages on pieces of paper in milk, and the notes were then folded and placed into walnut shells. The shells would then be heated over a fire, causing the milk to brown just enough for the message to mystically appear on the paper for the recipient.
As for costumes and trick-or-treating, many people were said to dress up as saints and recite songs or verses from door to door. Children would also go from door to door asking for "soul cakes," a treat similar to biscuits. Technical note: Soul Cakes originated as part of the All Souls' Day holiday on November 2nd (Yep, a thirdholiday!), but eventually became a part of Halloween night as the concept evolved into trick-or-treating.
As for the costumes, they evolved too. While they began as earnest tributes to saints, that tradition likely fell out of favor at some point…until young Scottish and Irish pranksters got the idea to dress up in scary-looking garb again as a way to spook unsuspecting neighbors. And just like that, thanks to these local hooligans, Halloween costumes became scary, spooky, funny, and creative all at the same time.
Halloween obviously remains a popular holiday in America today, but it actually almost didn't make it across the Atlantic. The Puritans were disapproving of the holiday's pagan roots, so they didn't take part in the celebrations. But once Irish and Scottish immigrants began to arrive in America in greater numbers, the holiday made its way back into the zeitgeist.
It's estimated that by the early 20th century, Halloween was celebrated across North America by the majority of (candy-loving, costume-wearing) people. And this year, once again, we'll all be enjoying our favorite treats and admiring our neighbors' decorations on October 31—and the only spooky spirits we'll be talking about are the witches and ghosts our friends dressed up as.