Origins of Halloween Traditions

How Did Your Favorite Halloween Traditions Start?

Oct 26, 2017
Halloween Pumpkin Ghosts
Pixabay

Share: 

Rate this Post: 

Average: 4.4 (43 votes)

Why does Halloween make us think of trick or treating, witches on broomsticks, bobbing for apples, and carved pumpkins? Here’s a look back at the origins of Halloween traditions and why we celebrate Halloween the way we do today.

Why is it called “Halloween”?

As with many holidays, Halloween is rooted in our agricultural past, marking the end of harvesttime and the beginning of the new year.

The origin of Halloween and many of its customs can be traced to Samhain, an ancient pagan Celtic festival that is Gaelic for “summer’s end,” a day to bid good-bye to warmth and light. The ancient Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest during Samhain, thereby making it the ideal time to communicate with the deceased and to divine the future.

Following the triumph of the Roman Empire over Celt-occupied lands in the 1st century A.D., the Romans combined many of the Celtic traditions, including Samhain, with their own. This day evolved into All Hallows’ Day or Allhallowmashallow meaning to sanctify.

Years later, the Roman Catholic Church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, in honor of all Catholic saints. It was celebrated with a mass, bonfires, and people costumed as angels and saints parading through the villages. November 2 brings All Souls’ Day, a holy day set aside for honoring the dead and departed.

Just as November 1 was once called All Hallows’ Day, October 31 was called All Hallows’ Eve. Over time, All Hallows’ Eve was shortened to Halloween!

Witches on Broomsticks

witchs-house-1635770_1920_full_width.jpg

Why are witches a common costume on Halloween? In the Middle Ages, women labeled as witches (from the Anglo-Saxon word wicce, or “wise one”) practiced divination. Such a woman would curl up near a fireplace and go into a trancelike state by chanting, meditating, or using hallucinogenic herbs. Superstitious people believed that these women flew out of their chimneys on broomsticks and terrorized the countryside with their magical deeds.

Bobbing for Apples

apple-autumn_full_width.jpg

Have you ever bobbed for apples? The Roman festival for Pomona, the goddess of fruit and orchards, was celebrated around November 1. Romans believed that the first person to catch a bobbing apple with his or her teeth would be the first to marry in the new year.

They also believed that apple peels held the secret to true love. The lovelorn would peel an apple in one long, unbroken piece and throw it over his or her shoulder while being spun around. The shape of the peel on the ground represented the first initial of the peeler’s true love.

The Jack-o’-Lantern

jack-o-lanterns_full_width.jpg

Before the modern pumpkin jack-o’-lantern, turnip lanterns were used. In ancient Ireland, revelers would hollow out large turnips (or potatoes or beets) and carve them into a demon’s face to frighten away spirits. They would light the turnips from within with a candle or a piece of smoldering coal. They then placed the lanterns in the windows and doorways of their homes, in the belief that the carvings would scare off evil spirits and welcome deceased loved ones inside.

Irish immigrants arriving in the New World during the early 1800s found the plentiful, easier-to-carve pumpkins ready substitutes for turnips. See our fun video about the history of pumpkin carving.

Halloween Costumes

costumes_full_width.jpg

During Samhain, superstitious country folk would disguise themselves with animal skins and masks made from sailcloth or linen. In costume, they would go outdoors and make lots of noise, in an effort to fool troublesome spirits into thinking that they were one of them or to scare them away.

See how to make easy Halloween makeup using only items from your pantry!

Tricks or Treats

candy-corn-1726481_1920_full_width.jpg

An extra place was set at the table during Samhain to serve as an offering to deceased loved ones. In addition, food was placed outside, near the doorway, to appease bothersome spirits who might otherwise play a trick on the inhabitants, such as tipping over containers of milk. Today’s trick-or-treating dates to the Middle Ages, when poor people collected baked goods called “soul cakes” from the wealthy. In exchange for cakes, the poor promised to pray for the giver’s deceased loved ones.

Learn More about Halloween

Want to learn more about Halloween? See our Halloween calendar page and our 10 best Halloween recipes!

What’s your favorite Halloween tradition or memory? Let us know in the comments!

About This Blog

This new corner of Almanac.com will feature news, information, and cool stuff from The Old Farmer’s Almanac and its family of publications.

Tags

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

Halloween

Thanks for all the information about Halloween! Happy to see the trick or treating tradition vibrant and lively as ever. We had quite a few youngsters knock on our door this evening looking for candy. Just love that tradition! Happy Halloween everyone!

The origin of Treat-or-Treat:

The origin of Trick or Treat was begun by the Anglo-Saxon "church"; the Church officials would go to countryside house to house; asking for a Treat; which was usually food; if the person did not give "a treat of food/meat; the Church would accuse the person of trickery";
((Paul Harvey; the rest of the story);

Halloween Information

Thank you so much for this fascinating information. Learned things I didn't know before and that's always a treat. Great article!

Halloween

Wonderful information about the background of Halloween in the events that happened during that period of time every year

Roman Empire

It was not the"Holy"Roman Empire when the area was conquered.

Moist turkey, crispy skin.

Holiday Dinner Plans
Prize winning Pilgrim Turkey recipe.

 

You will also be subscribed to our Almanac Companion Newsletter

solar_array.jpg

Solar Energy Production Today

0.00 kWh

Live data from the solar array at The Old Farmer's Almanac offices in Dublin, NH.