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This holiday once tied to farming and astronomy! It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or “darker half” of the year. Yes, Halloween has quite an ancient & “hallowed” history! Learn the origins of Halloween and how we celebrate this day.
When Is Halloween?
Halloween, traditionally called “All Hallows’ Eve,” is celebrated on the evening before the Christian holy day of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints Day (November 1). Therefore, Halloween is always celebrated on October 31.
When Is Halloween This Year?
Day of Halloween
Thursday, October 31
Friday, October 31
Saturday, October 31
Sunday, October 31
In England, saints or holy people were called “hallowed,” hence the name “All Hallows’ Day.” The evening—or “e’en”—before the feast became popularly known as “All Hallows’ Eve,” or, even shorter, “Hallowe’en.”
The origin of Halloween can be traced to an ancient festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in, which rhymes with cow-in), meaning Summer’s End. This was a sacred festival celebrated by the ancient Celts and Druids in the British Isles. It marked the end of the harvest and the start of a new year!
The ancient Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest during Samhain. This had positive benefits, as it was an ideal time to consider the dead, communicate with the deceased, and also to divine the future. Learn more about this ancient calendar’s ”Quarter Days and Cross-Quarter Days” and why we celebrate holidays the way we do!
Since Samhain was the death-night of the old year, it came to be associated with ghosts and graveyards. After midnight, the ghosts are said to go back to rest. (That day, November 1, later became All Saints’ Day.)
All Saints’ Day
Following the Roman Empire’s rule over Celt-occupied lands in the 1st century A.D., the Romans incorporated many of the Celtic traditions, including Samhain, with their own. Eight hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church further modified Samhain, designating November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor all saints from Christian history.
This day was formerly known as All Hallows’ Day or Allhallowmas, hallow meaning to sanctify or make holy. The evening before October 31, is known as All Hallows’ Eve—or, more commonly, Halloween!
If All Saints brings out winter, St. Martin brings out Indian summer.
How We Celebrate Halloween
Many of the customs and practices of Halloween are innocent fun, though some deal with reminders of death and concepts of good and evil.
Halloween was once known as “Nutcrack Night” in England—a time when the family gathered around the hearth to enjoy cider and nuts and apples.
The Irish used hollowed-out, candlelit turnips carved with a demon’s face to frighten away spirits. The name “Jack-O’-Lantern” comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack who invited the Devil to have a drink with him but wouldn’t pay. Jack tricked the devil and made a deal in which the devil couldn’t claim his soul but God didn’t want Jack in heaven either. Now Jack’s stuck roaming the Earth as an evil spirit with his lantern shining the way.
The Irish would carve scary faces into turnips or potatoes and place them near doors or windows during Halloween Eve to frighten away Stingy Jack and evil spirits. When Irish immigrants in the 1840s found few turnips in the United States, they used the more plentiful pumpkins instead. See more about the origins of popular Halloween traditions—from witches on broomsticks to bobbing apples.
Here are simply ways that you can celebrate Halloween.
As carved pumpkins only last 3 to 7 days without rotting, it can be fun to paint your pumpkins, too. This is fun for all ages but especially good for schools, groups, and offices who want to have an early pumpkin decorating contest. See who comes up with the best design! Give awards for most creative, funny, and artistic pumpkins.
Of course, once you scoop out the pumpkin insides, you need to roast those pumpkin seeds! Careful, these salty and crispy snacks go fast! See our recipe for Roasted Pumpkin Seeds.
If you don’t like to eat seeds, you can also save those pumpkin seeds to make a colorful pumpkin seed necklace.
3. Wear Halloween Costumes
Everyone loves a chance to dress up in Halloween costumes. The traditional costumes are spooky or Halloween-related such as witches, zombies, ghosts, and vampires. However, in the United States, the costumes get silly, too, from giant bananas to superhero characters to whatever your imagination conjures!
You certainly do not need to buy a costume; the tradition was to make your costume from home. Toilet paper is all you need to become a mummy. An old white sheet can become a ghost. Add some facepaint to create a vampire. See ideas for Halloween Makeup and Fake Blood From the Pantry.
4. More Halloween Activities
There are many fun Halloween activities and crafts. Here are some of our favorites from years past:
Apple bobbing. Traditionally, we all bobbed our heads in a giant metal tub of water in an attempt to grab an apple with only our teeth. Today, many parents find this unhealthy. But here is a fun alternative: Give each person a bucket of water with an apple and challenge them to take a bite. Make it a race and give the winner a prize.
Cornhusks dolls were made by Native American children long ago and it’s a fun activity today. See how to make a Traditional Corn Husk Doll
Ever made shrunken apple heads? This tradition also came from Native Americans. All you need are apples! See how to make Spooky Apple Heads.
Here are six more fun and family-friendly ideas for the young and young at heart!
Trick-or-Treat Trail: Give kids a simple map to your neighborhood. As they walk around the neighborhood with their map, they need to follow clues to get treats. It could be as simple as a road sign, a house that has big stones at the end of the driveway, a big tree, or a unique mailbox. If you have neighbors that decorate their home and porches, you can try to find pumpkins, skeletons, and more! Just drop a treat in your child’s bag at each stop. A similar idea for more of a neighborhood event is to give neighbors pumpkin drawings to put in their windows and give children a treat when they spot the next pumpkin drawing; this idea takes a little planning and close neighbors!
Halloween Hide-and-Seek: Similar to an egg hut, hide wrapped candies throughout the house or yard, and let the kids go find the treats. You can also turn it into a candy scavenger hunt with clue cards so they can follow clues to fill their buckets with candy that’s hidden around your home or yard.
Ghost Story Time: Here at the Almanac, this is an occasion to tell ghost stories! (They can be scary or not-so-scary, depending on your children’s age and temperament.) Gather around with cozy pillows and blankets and a few candles or flashlights. Need a tale to read on Halloween eve? Here’s a scary and surprisingly touching ghost story from the Almanac archives to read aloud to your family! Or, here are 17 kid-friendly spooky stories.
BOO! Your Neighbor: A newer tradition is create a ”You’ve Been BOOed!” basket or baggie which you leave on the doorstep of a family member, friends, or neighbor—complete with a small treat and a sign or poster that says, “You’ve Been BOOed!” Then display the sign in your window, and pass on the kindness!
Halloween Party and Movie Night: Have a family party! Bob for apples (in individual bowls if you wish), try to catch donuts hanging on a string with your mouth, wrap one another as mummies with toilet paper and see who finishes their roll first. Rent a Halloween Movie with Halloween-themed snacks and candy! Ideas for G movies to rent: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. PG movies: The Addams Family, Hotel Transylvania, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Beetlejuice. See more “G” and “PG” Halloween movies for kids.
Stick-or-Treat: Instead of having people exchange candy at your door, just put the candy out on a blanket in separate bags or stick the candy in the ground like this clever parent who created a lollipop garden in the mulch …
If you have time, wrap the Tootsie Roll Lollipops in tissue and turn them into ghosts!
Wake up your walking dead with these Halloween poems! They are perfect to read in the evening or to add to a homemade card.
From “Spirits of the Dead” By Edgar Allan Poe “Be silent in that solitude, Which is not loneliness—for then The spirits of the dead, who stood In life before thee, are again In death around thee, and their will Shall overshadow thee; be still.”
From “Song of the Witches” (Macbeth) By William Shakespeare “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the caldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
From “All Soul’s Night, 1917” by Hortense King Flexner “You heap the logs and try to fill The little room with words and cheer, But silent feet are on the hill, Across the window veiled eyes peer. The hosts of lovers, young in death, Go seeking down the world to-night, Remembering faces, warmth and breath— And they shall seek till it is light. Then let the white-flaked logs burn low, Lest those who drift before the storm See gladness on our hearth and know There is no flame can make them warm.”
From “Theme in Yellow” By Carl Sandburg “I spot the hills With yellow balls in autumn I light the prairie cornfields Orange and tawny gold clusters And I am called pumpkins. On the last of October When dusk is fallen Children join hands And circle round me Singing ghost songs And love to the harvest moon; I am a jack-o’-lantern With terrible teeth And the children know I am fooling.”
From “Hallowe’en” By Joel Benton “Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite All are on their rounds to-night,— In the wan moon’s silver ray Thrives their helter-skelter play.
Don’t we all, of long ago By the ruddy fireplace glow, In the kitchen and the hall, Those queer, coof-like pranks recall?
Every shadows were they then— But to-night they come again; Were we once more but sixteen Precious would be Hallowe’en.”
Happy Halloween, everyone!
What’s your favorite Halloween tradition? Let us know in the comments!
Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprise that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann