Halloween: Its Roots and Traditions Around the World

Halloween is a holiday celebrated on the night of October 31st. Traditional activities include trick-or-treating, bonfires, costume parties, visiting "haunted houses" and carving jack-o-lanterns.

Irish and Scottish immigrants carried versions of the tradition to North America in the nineteenth century. Other western countries embraced the holiday in the late 20th century including Ireland, the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced "sah-win").

The festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture. Samhain was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and prepare for winter. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31st, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back to life and cause havoc such as sickness or damaged crops.

The festival would frequently involve bonfires. It is believed that the fires attracted insects to the area, which attracted bats to the area. These are additional attributes of the history of Halloween.

Masks and costumes were worn in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or appease them.


Trick-or-treating, is an activity for children on or around Halloween in which they proceed from house to house in costumes, asking for treats such as confectionery with the question, "Trick or treat?" The "trick" part of "trick or treat" is a threat to play a trick on the homeowner or his property if no treat is given.

Trick-or-treating is one of the main traditions of Halloween. It has become socially expected that if one lives in a neighborhood with children one should purchase treats in preparation for trick-or-treaters.

The history of Halloween has evolved. The activity is popular in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and due to increased American cultural influence in recent years, imported through exposure to US television and other media, trick-or-treating has started to occur among children in many parts of Europe, and in the Saudi Aramco camps of Dhahran, Akaria compounds and Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia.

The most significant growth, and resistance is in the United Kingdom, where the police have threatened to prosecute parents who allow their children to carry out the "trick" element.

In continental Europe, where the commerce-driven importation of Halloween is seen with more skepticism, numerous destructive or illegal "tricks" and police warnings have further raised suspicion about this game and Halloween in general.

In Ohio, Iowa, and Massachusetts, the night designated for Trick-or-treating is often referred to as Beggars Night.

Part of the history of Halloween is Halloween costumes. The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays goes back to the Middle Ages, and includes Christmas wassailing.

Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of "souling," when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1st), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2nd). It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy. Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of "puling [whimpering, whining], like a beggar at Hallowmas."

Yet there is no evidence that souling was ever practiced in America, and trick-or-treating may have developed in America independent of any Irish or British antecedent.

There is little primary Halloween history documentation of masking or costuming on Halloween, in Ireland, the UK, or America, before 1900. The earliest known reference to ritual begging on Halloween in English speaking North America occurs in 1911, when a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, near the border of upstate New York, reported that it was normal for the smaller children to go "street guising" on Halloween between 6 and 7 p.m., visiting shops and neighbors to be rewarded with nuts and candies for their rhymes and songs.

Another isolated reference appears, place unknown, in 1915, with a third reference in Chicago in 1920. The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show children, but do not depict trick-or-treating. Ruth Edna Kelley, in her 1919 history of the holiday, The Book of Hallowe'en, makes no mention of such a custom in the chapter "Hallowe'en in America." It does not seem to have become a widespread practice until the 1930s, with the earliest known uses in print of the term "trick or treat" appearing in 1934, and the first use in a national publication occurring in 1939.

Thus, although a quarter million Scots-Irish immigrated to America between 1717 and 1770, the Irish Potato Famine brought almost a million immigrants in 1845–1849. British and Irish immigration to America peaked in the 1880s; ritualized begging on Halloween was virtually unknown in America until generations later.

Trick-or-treating spread from the western United States eastward, stalled by sugar rationing that began in April 1942 during World War II and did not end until June 1947.

Early national attention to trick-or-treating was given in October 1947 issues of the children's magazines Jack and Jill and Children's Activities, and by Halloween episodes of the network radio programs The Baby Snooks Show in 1946 and The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1948. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney portrayed it in the cartoon Trick or Treat; Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their television show, and UNICEF first conducted a national campaign for children to raise funds for the charity while trick-or-treating.

Although some popular histories of Halloween have characterized trick-or-treating as an adult invention to re-channel Halloween activities away from vandalism, nothing in the historical record supports this theory. To the contrary, adults, as reported in newspapers from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, typically saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger.

Likewise, as portrayed on radio shows, children would have to explain what trick-or-treating was to puzzled adults, and not the other way around. Sometimes even the children protested: for Halloween 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City carried a parade banner that read "American Boys Don't Beg."

The Jack-O'-Lantern

A jack-o'-lantern (sometimes also spelled Jack O'Lantern) is typically a carved pumpkin. It is associated chiefly with Halloween. Typically, the top is cut off, and the inside flesh then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved onto the outside surface, and the lid replaced. During the night, a candle is placed inside to illuminate the effect. The term is not particularly common outside North America, although the practice of carving lanterns for Halloween is.

In folklore, an old Irish folk tale tells of Jack, a lazy yet shrewd farmer who uses a cross to trap the Devil. One story says that Jack tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree, and once he was up there, Jack quickly placed crosses around the trunk or carved a cross into the bark, so that the Devil couldn't get down.

Another myth says that Jack put a key in the Devil's pocket while he was suspended upside-down.

Another version of the myth says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen from, when he met the Devil, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting the Devil with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told the Devil to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (the Devil could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin/Devil disappeared, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it. The Devil agreed to this plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack's wallet, only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also picked up in the village. Jack had closed the wallet tight, and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers; and so he was trapped. In both myths, Jack only lets the Devil go when he agrees never to take his soul. After some time, the thief died, as all living things do.

Of course, his life had been too sinful for Jack to go to heaven; however, the Devil had promised not to take his soul, and so he was barred from Hell as well. Jack now had nowhere to go. He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and the Devil mockingly tossed him an ember that would never burn out from the flames of hell. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which was his favorite food), put the ember inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He became known as "Jack of the Lantern", or Jack-o'-Lantern.

There are variations on the legend:

Some versions include a "wise and good man", or even God helping Jack to prevail over the Devil.

There are different versions of Jack's bargain with the Devil. Some variations say the deal was only temporary but the Devil, embarrassed and vengeful, refuses Jack's entry to hell after Jack dies.

Jack is considered a greedy man and is not allowed into either heaven or hell, without any mention of the Devil.

Despite the colorful legends, the term jack-o'-lantern originally meant a night watchman, or man with a lantern, with the earliest known use in the mid-17th century; and later, meaning an ignis fatuus or will-o'-the-wisp. In Labrador and Newfoundland, both names "Jacky Lantern" and "Jack the Lantern" refer to the will-o'-the-wisp concept rather than the pumpkin carving aspect.


Halloween costumes are outfits worn on or around Halloween. Costuming became popular for Halloween parties in America in the early 1900s, as often for adults as for children. The first mass-produced Halloween costumes appeared in stores in the 1930s when trick-or-treating was becoming popular in the United States.

What sets Halloween costumes apart from costumes for other celebrations or days of dressing up is that they are often designed to imitate supernatural and scary beings. Costumes are traditionally those of monsters such as vampires, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils.

There are also costumes of pop culture figures like presidents, or film, television, and cartoon characters.

Another popular trend is for women (and in some cases, men) to use Halloween as an excuse to wear particularly revealing costumes, showing off more skin than would be socially acceptable otherwise.

Halloween Originated in Ireland

Ireland is said to be the birthplace of Halloween. Much like the United States, the Irish celebrate the holiday with costumes, trick-or-treating, and community gatherings.

At those gatherings, typically after trick-or-treating, games are played, including a game called ‘snap-apple’. The game begins with an apple being tied to a doorframe or tree and players then attempt to bite the hanging apple. The game is much like ‘bobbing for apples’ here in the United States.

Want to know more? CLICK HERE for more information on how the Irish celebrate Halloween!

Halloween in Other Countries

A Halloween tradition in Austria involves bread, water and a lighted lamp. Some of the locals will leave bread, water and a lighted lamp on the table before retiring on Halloween night. Considered a magical night, Halloween to Austrians was a way to welcome the dead souls back to earth.

In Belgium, some believe it is unlucky if a black cat enters a home or travels on a ship. Also, much like in the United States, Belgium citizens believe that it is unlucky for a black cat to cross one's path. On Halloween night, a custom there is to light candles in memory of dead relatives.

With the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 1800s, modern Halloween celebrations in Canada began. Festivities include parties, trick-or-treating and the decorating of homes with pumpkins and corn stalks, as well as the carving of Jack O' Lanterns.

In China, the Halloween festival is known as Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of family members who have departed while bonfires and lanterns are lit in order to light the paths of the spirits as they travel the earth on Halloween night. Worshippers in Buddhist temples fashion "boats of the law" from paper, which are then burned in the evening hours. There are two purposes to this custom: as a remembrance of the dead and in order to free the spirits of the "pretas" in order that they might ascend to heaven. "Pretas" are the spirits of those who died as a result of an accident or drowning and whose bodies were consequently never buried.

Want to know more? CLICK HERE for more information on Chinese Halloween traditions.

On Halloween night in Czechoslovakia, chairs are placed by the fireside. One chair is placed to commemorate each living family member and one for each family member's spirit.

While the Irish and Scots preferred turnips, English children made "punkies" out of large beets, upon which they carved a design of their choice. Then, they would carry their "punkies" through the streets while singing the "Punkie Night Song" as they knocked on doors and asked for money. Halloween became Guy Fawkes Night and moved a few days later. Recently, it has been celebrated on October 31st, in addition to Guy Fawkes Night.

Want to know more? CLICK HERE for more information on how the men, women and children of England celebrate Halloween!

Britain - Guy Fawkes Day
On the evening of November 5th, bonfires are lit throughout England. Effigies are burned and fireworks are set off. Although the day is around the same time and has some similar traditions, this celebration has little to do with Halloween. As Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation began to spread, the celebration of Halloween ended. In 1517, on Halloween, Martin Luther attempted to begin reformation of the Catholic Church. The formation of the Protestant Church was the result instead. They didn't believe in saints; therefore, they had no reason to celebrate the eve of All Saints' Day. However, a new autumn ritual did materialize. Guy Fawkes Day festivities were designed to commemorate the execution of a notorious English traitor, Guy Fawkes.

Want to know more about Guy Fawkes? CLICK HERE to learn more about why Britain commemorates Guy Fawkes Day.

France - la fête d'Halloween
In France, Halloween is not celebrated to honor the dead. It is considered an ‘American Holiday’ and until 1996, it was virtually unknown in the country.

However, because of the love of parties, fêtes’ and costume events in France, a rapid rise of the holiday has been noticed in recent years.

Foreign residents brought details of Halloween to the country for years before remnants of the day began to stick in French culture. In 1982, the American Dream bar/restaurant in Paris began celebrating Halloween.

The village of Saint Germain-en-Laye held a Halloween party on October 24th, 1996, in the middle of the day, to give locals an idea of what the holiday was all about.

So, do you want to know more about how the French celebrate Halloween? CLICK HERE to learn more about the revolution of Halloween in France!

To not risk harm to, or from the returning spirits, in Germany, people put away their knives on Halloween night.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong calls their Halloween festivities, "Yue Lan", which translates into the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. It is believed that spirits roam the world for 24 hours. To bring comfort to the ghosts, some believe that burning pictures of fruit or money will reach the spirit world.

Halloween is known as "Alla Helgons Dag" in Sweden. It is celebrated from October 31st until November 6th. "Alla Helgons Dag" has an eve, which is either celebrated or becomes a shortened working day. The Friday prior to All Saint's Day is a short day for universities while school-age children are given a day of vacation.

Want to know more about how other countries around the world celebrate Halloween? CLICK HERE to learn more about the festivities in Japan, Korea, Mexico, Latin America, and Spain!

Images: Creepy Halloween Images.com

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