Halloween, observed on the evening of October 31, is a popular celebration around the world, loved by adults and children alike. It takes place on the day before All Saints' Day and is also known as Hallowe'en, All Hallows' Eve; All Saints' Eve, and Samhain. It is not a public holiday, therefore businesses and stores follow normal opening hours.
What is the meaning of Halloween?
The meaning of the word "Halloween" is a contraction of All Hallows' Eve to mean "hallowed evening". Halloween is believed to have been brought to North America by colonists in the 19th century when thousands of people moved to the United States and Canada from Ireland and Britain. They brought their Halloween customs with them and over time those customs combined with the traditions coming from Germany and other parts of the world.
In the early 20th century, Halloween became a nationwide holiday, and now it is a multibillion-dollar industry celebrated worldwide. Many people, particularly children, choose to dress in spooky costumes in honor of the haunted holiday, parading the streets trick-or-treating.
History and Origins
History shows that Halloween originated in ancient Britain and Ireland (5th century BCE), on the full moon closest to November 1, when the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain - Summer’s End, the Celtic New Year. Samhain was the god of the dead. They believed that the barrier between the physical and the spirit world disappeared and that the spirits of the dead, good and evil, returned to earth. These spirits would harm people if not offered gifts, such as food and drink, and sweet goods. People would often dress as spirits so that evil spirits would not recognize them.
As it marked the end of summer, it was necessary to perform various rites and sacrifices to awaken the dying sun. All fires were extinguished, sacred fires were lit for the new year, and these people lit new fires in their homes, to safeguard them during the approaching winter. These sacred bonfires would repel evil spirits, and they were also used to offer crop and animal sacrifices to Celtic deities. Druids, and Celtic priests, wore animal-skin costumes and told each other’s fortunes. Druids went from house to house, carrying lanterns and demanding money as offerings.
Samhain was also celebrated by indulging in drunkenness and conduct otherwise forbidden in daily life.
From 43 CE onwards, the Romans ruled the Celts. Roman customs were merged with Celtic traditions. For example, the goddess Pomona was a goddess of fruit, trees, and fertility. Apples and hazelnuts were considered sacred and used for divining information on marriage, childbearing, and death - very important questions in an agricultural community. Apples with certain markings were placed in a tub of water or hung from a tree. By grabbing one using only the mouth, a young man or woman was supposed to be able to foretell his or her future spouse.
Christianity then spread to Celtic lands. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV is said to have designated May 13 as a time to honor all martyrs - All Martyrs Day. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III chose November I instead to honor martyrs, saints, and relics as well. All Saints’ Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. All Souls’ Day came after All Saints’ Day. The All Saints’ Day celebration was also known as All-hallows or All-hallowmas, and the night before it, the same night as Samhain, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween, from the 18th century onwards.
The Christian church also urged its followers to dress like spirits, angels, and devils to go from house to house and request small goods, such as food, in exchange for prayers for dead relatives, “going-a-souling”. One particular treat handed out was called a soul cake, a traditional cookie with a cross on the top.
Candles or burning coals were placed in carved-out turnips or other root vegetables and were carried or placed in windows to repel Stingy Jack (a fabled drunken man doomed to roam the earth by Satan) or other spirits. Later, this was also thought to represent a soul trapped in purgatory. Pumpkins were used instead when the custom was brought to America. The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “throughout the Middle Ages it was a popular belief that the souls in purgatory could appear on this day as will-o’-the-wisps, witches, toads, etc.”
What to do on Halloween and how to celebrate it:
Many of these ancient customs and rituals are still followed today. Many people embrace the spirit of Halloween and celebrate in a variety of ways, be it spending the night trick-or-treating - children going from house to house, or staying at home and watching a scary movie. Some host Halloween parties with games and activities such as apple-bobbing, costume competitions, and pumpkin-carving, accompanied by Halloween-themed food and candy.
Examples of ancient Celtic customs that can still be seen in costumes and decorations include:
- carved pumpkin heads (Jack O'Lanterns)
- spiders, and so on.
Since Halloween has come to play a huge part in modern culture, with movies and music inspired by the holiday, cinemas often show re-runs of classic movies in honor of the holiday. The most notable movie franchise is arguably the aptly named Halloween series featuring Michael Myers, originating in 1978. If you're wondering how many Halloween movies there are, you might be surprised to know there are 11 films in total - and that’s just the Halloween movie franchise!
There are plenty more Halloween-inspired movies such as:
- Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
- The Addams Family
- Hocus Pocus
- and A Nightmare on Elm Street, among many others
In music, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Monster Mash by Bobby Pickett are among the popular songs associated with Halloween.
Many US States host a variety of different events around Halloween, so why not look up what’s happening in an area near you. For example, Hudson Valley hosts The Great Jack O’lantern Blaze each year.
Fun facts about Halloween:
- As well as being the second most commercial holiday in the country, a quarter of all candy sales happen during this spooky season. Other sales include the purchases of Halloween costumes, decorations, and accessories.
- The Jack o'lantern comes from the Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. Guinness World Records state the most lit at one time is over 30,000.
- Trick or treat was originally an Ancient form of “guising”, where children would dress in costumes made of old clothing to roam the streets freely, going undetected by evil ghouls and spirits.
- Candy Corn was originally known as Chicken Feed, owing to the candy’s original branding from the 1800s. Over 35 million pounds of Candy Corn are sold each year, with sales peaking on or around Halloween and National Candy Corn Day.
- Halloween is celebrated all over the world. Other counties have their traditions, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead and China’s Hungry Ghost Festival.
Halloween always falls on October 31, but what day of the week Halloween is will vary. You can check past and present Halloween dates here:
- Halloween 2020 - Saturday, October 31
- Halloween 2021 - Sunday, October 31
- Halloween 2022 - Monday, October 31
- Halloween 2023 - Tuesday, October 31
- Halloween 2024 - Thursday, October 31