History of Halloween

Halloween Jack O LanternHISTORY OF HALLOWEEN

Halloween (Allhallows Even) is the evening of October 31. In its strictly religious aspect, this occasion is known as the vigil of Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day, November 1, observed by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. In the fourth decade of the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved this holiday to the present date (from May 13) for celebrating the feast when he consecrated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to all the saints.

Later, Gregory IV extended the feast to the entire church in 834. In Latin countries in Europe, the evening of October 31 is observed mainly as a religious occasion, but in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, ancient Halloween folk customs persist alongside the religious observance.

Halloween is the second most popular holiday in the U.S. after Christmas — at least according to retailers where overall Halloween spending is predicted to be over $10B — but it is the first in terms of candy sales alone of $3B. Not only are candy and costumes popular purchases, but increasingly, houses are being decorated with “Halloween lights.” Parties are popular and are increasingly being celebrated the weekend before.

  • In Boston, for example, Salem is a popular location for these with its month-long Haunted Happenings celebrations — due to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 — and the Massachusetts Turnpike traffic signs point out that Salem can be reached from Boston via Route 1A North.
  • In Tokyo, I’ve seen young people dress up in western-style costumes during Halloween, especially in the Harajuku district along the shopping area on Takeshita-dori Street.


Ancient Rome

PomonaStudents of folklore believe that the popular customs of Halloween show traces of the Roman harvest festival of Pomona and Celtic Druidism. These influences are inferred from the use of nuts and apples as traditional Halloween foods and the figures of witches, black cats, and skeletons commonly associated with the occasion.

In Rome, Pomona was a goddess of flourishing fruit trees, gardens, and orchards (Latin word pomum, “fruit”, specifically orchard fruit) but was not part of the major pantheon of Roman God’s and goddesses (and is not mentioned at all in the Greek pantheon.) Ovid in his Metamorphosis tells how she scorned the woodland god Silvanus and instead married Vertumnus; they shared a festival held on August 13.


Pre-Christian Europe

In pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic year ended on October 31, the eve of Samhain, and was celebrated with both religious and harvest rites. For the Druids, Samhain (pronounced: SOWin) was both the “end of summer” and a festival of the dead. The spirits of the departed were believed to visit their relatives in search of warmth and good cheer as winter approached. It was also believed to be an occasion when fairies, witches, and goblins terrified the populace. The agents of the supernatural were alleged to steal infants, destroy crops, and kill farm animals. Bonfires were lighted on hilltops on the eve of Samhain. The fires may have been lighted in the belief of guiding the spirits of the dead to the homes of their relatives or to ward off witches. In some regions of Scotland Halloween was known as Nutcrack Night.

Jack-o-Lanterns were popularized in Ireland. The apocryphal story goes that Stingy Jack allegedly tried to trick the devil. He was cursed to wander the earth following his death with a burning coal lighting a hollowed turnip. He was called Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O’Lantern.

  • In the City Center of modern-day Dublin, one can find signs advertising “Samhain Halloween” parties. Samhain is also the name for November in the modern Scots and Irish Gaelic languages.


Medieval Europe

During the Middle Ages, when the common folk believed that witchcraft was devoted to the worship of Satan, this practice included periodic meetings, known as Witches’ Sabbaths, which were allegedly given over to feasting and revelry. One of the most important Sabbaths was held on Halloween. Witches were alleged to fly to these meetings on broomsticks, accompanied by black cats who were their constant companions. Stories of these Sabbaths are the source of much folklore about Halloween.


Colonial America Halloween and Halloween

In 17th century Puritan New England the celebration of Halloween was banned, along with any special celebration of Christmas and Easter, though Catholic Maryland and Anglican Virginia retained some Halloween customs. During 19th century Victorian times, Halloween was generally tame and devoid of occult overtones. Instead of pulling pranks or haunting neighborhoods, young people chatted and flirted in festooned parlors.


19th Century Halloween

In the mid-19th century in Ireland and Scotland, young people, in imitation of malevolent spirits, would play pranks on neighbors at this time of year. Samhain became nicknamed “Mischief Night.” When immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1840s, primarily due to the Potato Famine, they brought this harmless mischief with them. It was only in Depression-era in 1930s America that these pranks turned into vandalism. To combat this trend, storekeepers and neighborhoods used candy as a substitute distraction so that the pranksters would go door-to-door collecting treats.


Modern Practices of Halloween

Trick or TreatFollowing World War II and the end of sugar rationing, Halloween became almost a civic affair with block parties and parades. Pranks and mischief were common on Halloween. Wandering groups of celebrants blocked doors of houses with carts, carried away gates and plows, tapped on windows, threw vegetables at doors, and covered chimneys with turf so that smoke could not escape.

In some places, boys and girls dressed in clothing of the opposite sex and, wearing masks, visited neighbors to play tricks. These activities generally resembled the harmful and mischievous behavior attributed to witches, fairies, and goblins.


Trick or Treat from the British Isles

Allhallows EveThe contemporary “trick or treat” custom resembles an ancient Irish practice associated with Allhallows Eve. Groups of peasants went from house to house demanding food and other gifts in preparation for the evening’s festivities. Prosperity was assured for liberal donors, and threats were made against stingy ones.

These contributions were often demanded in the name of Muck Olla, an early Druid deity, or of St. Columb Cille, “dove of the Church” (also known as St. Colomba), who was an Irish missionary to Scotland during the 6th century.


  • In England, some of the folk attributes of Halloween were assimilated by Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on November 5. Consequently, Halloween lost some of its importance there. Many children are now going for the double treat: candy on October 31, money for November 5.



muertosIn the late 20th century Dia de Muertos, or Dia de Los Muertos, became popular in more extensive parts of Mexico than just the central and south parts of the country, migrating to the north and in parts of the U.S. with Mexican immigrants. “The Day of the Dead,” a public holiday in Mexico, honors the dead, especially children, and harkens back to pre-Columbian indigenous traditions across Mexico and some parts of Latin America, Spain, Italy, and the Philippines.

Celebrated initially during the beginning of Summer before the 16th-century colonization by Spain, it has become syncretized in modern times with the days from October 31 through November 2.


Halloween in the U.S.

95-thesisThough immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland brought secular Halloween customs to the U.S., the festival did not become popular in America until the latter part of the 19th century. This may have been because it had long been popular with the Irish, who migrated to the U.S. in large numbers. Although some churches observe Halloween with religious services in America, many people regard it as a secular festival.

  • Other Protestant churches celebrate it as Reformation Day in commemoration of the date of October 31 in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the northern wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.


Do you dress up in costume to celebrate Halloween?


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. John Elliott on October 30, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Halloween was always very popular in our neighborhood when I was young. I recall running from door to door “trick or treating”. Since it was also my birthday, I was the most hyperactive, sugared-up child on the block.

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