Happy Halloween

Halloween jack o lanterns
Today is October 31st, and it’s Halloween—one of my favorite holidays of the year.

Around the globe (mostly in North America and Europe), children are going door to door trick-or-treating, and adults are getting ready for a party or two. It’s a day for everyone to be a kid, dress up in costumes, and cut loose. Come to think of it, Halloween is my favorite holiday. So here’s some information on one of the most fun days of the year.

History of Halloween
Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain. The festival was a time to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous to the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops. Costumes and masks were worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them.

Halloween tick or treatIn the seventh century, the Pope designated November 1 as a time to honor saints—attempting to replace the Celtic festival with a related, church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was called All-Hallows or All Saints’ Day, and the night before it was called All-Hallows Eve. In AD 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated like Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and people dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, these three celebrations were called Hallowmas (i.e. Halloween).

The celebration of Halloween in colonial times was extremely limited. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds.

In the late 1800s, America was flooded with new immigrants who helped popularize the celebration of Halloween. Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties. By the 1950s, Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween spirit. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats, which is great if you’re a kid—free candy!

Halloween is a pretty secular event now, though in many parts of the world, especially Mexico, the Day of the Dead tradition of honoring the deceased is still very strong.

Halloween Celebrations
With so many ways to celebrate the day, Halloween allows the young to act crazy and the old to act crazier. In many parts of the world, the holiday is just catching on. I remember going to a “Halloween” party in Vienna—everyone was a vampire, and there was no candy! So to ensure optimum celebration, here are ways to make the most of the day:

Halloween mummy customs

  • Dress Up – Halloween isn’t Halloween without a costume! Get into the spirit with a crazy or not-so-crazy costume. From the typical Dracula to the weird, full-on Winnie the Pooh costume I once saw, no matter what it is, at least you’re getting into the spirit. Even throwing a sheet around yourself and calling it a toga is good. (Not that I did that or am doing it again.)
  • Bob for apples – What’s more fun than getting a face full of water while trying to grab an apple with your mouth?! Especially fun after a few drinks! This is usually done as a young teenager, but it’s still fun as an adult, especially if you add some “adult” rules.
  • Tell a ghost story – Boo! What’s the day without a little fright? Turn off the lights, put the flashlight to your faces, and get really creepy. Scary stories and tales are as much a part of Halloween as costumes. I remember hearing a story once at camp about “Bob” that scared me for weeks. I’m still not sure it’s fake. It probably is. But I’m not sure.
  • Carve a Pumpkin – The name jack-o’-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking old farmer. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into the tree trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack, condemning him to forever wander the earth at night with the only light he had: a candle inside a hollowed turnip. Make your own jack-o’-lantern to scare away the spirits. It’s one of the most fun Halloween activities! It allows you to be very creative, and some pumpkin designs are really intricate. Added bonus: cooked pumpkin seeds are delicious.
  • Candy apples – Since the holiday comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest, candy apples are a good Halloween treat made by rolling whole apples in a sticky caramel that your dentist will hate.
  • Trick or Treat – There’s nothing better than going door to door and getting candy. Everyone decorates their houses and gives out candy to kids (and adults) who ring their doorbells. What a great community activity! Even if you’re too old to go door to door, as an adult you should still indulge in lots of candy. (Candy corn is the best.)

On this day of fright, go out and cast the evil spirits away and have some fun. The day may not carry the religious significance it used to, but it’s still great for a person of any age to enjoy. As I kid, I loved trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, eating pumpkins, and getting lots of candy. Now, as an adult, I still love all those things—but now I also get to go to excellent Halloween parties.

Happy Halloween!

  1. Monna

    Thanks for the great photo! Hallowe’en is not catching on in Spain.
    November 1st, however, is All Saints Days (Todo los Santos) and it is a national holiday. Traditional foods for this holiday include roasted chestnut (castañes), sweet potatoes, and small almond cookies called pannellets. These are sometimes served by Maria, la Castañada or chestnut seller. The little treats are reminders of the days when home made cakes and offerings were left with the bodies of the dead.

  2. Not a big deal in Australia usually. For the first time ever I actually had some kids come trick or treating. Had nothing to give them. Didn’t even realise it was Halloween till I saw little witches walking around. We moved to a new suburb this year though and I’m guessing the local primary school promotes it heavily or something.

    Kirsty, I can’t think of any Dutch traditions that involve kids going door to door (I’m part Dutch). Maybe there’s some regional ones that I’m unaware of though. Sinterklaas is the BIG deal in Holland, but the tradition there is for Sinterklaas and his “Zwarte Pieten” to come by your house. I understand that the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) have started to come in other colours, because it was not exactly politically correct.

    Matt, I’m not sure where in Europe it has caught on at all to be honest.. is there any specific countries where it is even close to as big as it is in the US?

  3. NomadicMatt

    @angela: I didn’t have one..

    @wandermom: we have the genesis. I just explain the history a bit more.

    @peter: It definetly is not as big in Europe as it is in the US but I think the UK has some stuff. I think Halloween in Europe is more about adults having fun than kids. At least that was the impression I got when I was there last year.

    @everyone else: Happy halloween! Hope you had a good one!

  4. Dutchie


    I live in North Holland n St Maarten is celebrated on Nov 11 – the tune “elf november is de dag, dat mijn kaarsjes branden mag” says it all – with the kids singing door to door with their pretty lanterns n being rewarded with sweets.

  5. Interesting history. Still have never had a kid come around hunting for treats in Australia though i believe that it is slowly infiltrating our fair shores.

  6. Dan

    Your history of “Celtic” Halloween (Samhain) is entirely modern neo-pagan invention. There is no historical evidence that the pre-Christian Celts held any sort of festival of the dead, nor that they held a religious festival on November 1st.

    The Pope designated November 1st as All Saints Day in the 9th century, centuries after Ireland had become Christian. The Irish, who had already established their own All Saints celebration in April actually moved their’s to November 1st to match the Roman custom.

    All Saints Day and Hallowe’en actually owe their existence to Roman Catholicism and that’s it.

    Ref: “The Stations of the Sun” by Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, Bristol University, England.

  7. Very interesting read Matt… regardless of the exact origins to some of the other commenter’s points, it fascinating to see what it’s all grown into and, for the international commenters, how it plays out around the world.

Leave a Comment