Halloween has long been a favorite holiday for children and adults, but long before it was an evening filled with fun and candy, it was a somber celebration. The date of Halloween is October 31 and it was originally intended to celebrate the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture. Ancient pagans slaughtered their livestock for the long winter ahead and evaluated the supplies they had available to them until the next growing season. Many believed it was on this date that the barrier between death and life evaporated, and the dead were able to interact with the living during this 24 hour period. Some believe Halloween is a direct result of this ancient celebration, known as Samhain. Samhain usually included bonfires, masks, and costumes, all in an effort to confuse the spirits attempting to cause harm.
It was during this time that many of the best known traditions of today’s Halloween celebration began. People attended parties and shared ghost
stories, all in an attempt to be ignored by the spirits during this day. There would also be offerings of food made to the spirit of Saman, hoping to keep him from harsh judgment of deceased loved ones. Some believe this is the origins of the Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating.
Others believe Halloween was the result of the impending Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which fall on the first and second of November. Similar to Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, was the final opportunity for the year’s dead to gain revenge on the living before passing on to the other life. Christians would don masks and costumes in an effort to hide from the spirits seeking revenge. The holiday has long been a point of contention among Christians. Many who do not believe in purgatory see the holiday as anti-predestination and others believe celebrating a holiday with pagan roots is outwardly un-Christian.
Trick-or-treating might also derive from the action of souling that was practiced in Ireland and Britain. Poor people would go door-to-door on All Saints’ Day offering prayer for the dead the following day in exchange for food.
Though Halloween-like celebrations were common in Europe for thousands of years, it was not until the 1800s that Halloween came to the United States. It was the influx of Irish families in the 1850s that brought the tradition to the new world. Gradually, today’s American traditions of Halloween took hold. Today’s jack-o-lanterns made of pumpkin were originally carved turnips, created in honor of deceased family members. Many of the traditions seen today are due in part to the work of authors and film makers. Frightening images paired well with the traditional customers of Halloween and over the years became an important part of the holiday. In some places, many of the common Halloween traditions have again fallen out of favor. The frightening or gory costumes have been replaced with costumes of fantasy or folklore characters, and the events are deemed a harvest or fall celebration.