Community, Holidays, Religious

The Origins of Halloween

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by Cynthia MacGregor


From trick-or-treating to costume parties, from pranks to watching scary movies, Halloween is a holiday enjoyed by all ages. In fact, it is second only to Christmas in retail sales. But how much do you know about the origins of Halloween?

Its roots go back two millennia, to the polytheistic Romans, who had a goddess named Pompona. Each October the early Romans celebrated the Feast of Pompona, during which they lit fires inside gourds—the antecedents of our jack o’lanterns—to chase away evil spirits.

Halloween’s origins also go back to the Celts, whose new year started on November 1st. Their New Year’s Eve was known as the Festival of Samhain, Samhain being the Lord of Death. On the Celtic New Year, each household would let their fire go out. Then they would go to the Druid priests’ bonfire, light wood or rags from it, and carefully carry this fire home and use it to start a new fire in the hearth. They believed this would bring them good luck in the new year.

Not that long ago, right here in America, kids celebrated Halloween with bonfires. They would throw scrap wood in a pile in the street, and then set fire to the pile. (Do you remember the Halloween scene in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis?)

When the Romans went to war with the Celts some of their customs became intermingled. On the Festival of Samhain, which was on October 31st, Celtic adults would wear costumes to frighten away evil spirits. Soon Celtic children started walking up and down the streets dressed in costumes too, although they didn’t knock on doors or carry goody bags.

Later, when Christian missionaries arrived they were horrified at the things the people believed, and the holidays they celebrated. The Lord of Death? Evil spirits?

But the missionaries knew that the Celts weren’t going to give up their holidays altogether, so instead of telling them they had to stop celebrating the festival of Samhain, the missionaries turned the festival into a celebration of the Christian saints. Since not all saints have days in their honor, the missionaries decreed that any saint who didn’t have a holiday of his or her own would be celebrated on November 1st, which became known as “All Saints Day,” and was also called “All Hallow Day.” The evening before that came to be known as “All Hallows’ Evening,” or “All Hallows’ Eve.”

If you say, “All Hallows’ Eve” quickly, you can hear how “All Hallows’ Eve” got turned into “Halloween.”


When the Scottish and Irish people, the descendants of the Celts, came over to America, they brought their traditions with them. To this day, Halloween is still mostly celebrated in English-speaking countries, especially Ireland, Canada, and America.

It was the Irish who gave us the name “jack o’lantern” for the carved-out pumpkin. According to an old Irish story, a man named Jack supposedly tricked the Devil into getting stuck up a tree, angering the Devil. Later on, when Jack died, he was not allowed into Heaven because he had been a bad person when he was alive. But because he had tricked the Devil, the Devil wouldn’t even let Jack into Hell.

Halloween pumpkins

Halloween pumpkins

Jack wandered around in the darkness carrying a hollow turnip, which he wanted to light up and use as a lantern. But the devil would give him only one lump of coal to light the lantern. The hero of this fable became known as “Jack of the lantern,” or, in the Irish pronunciation, “Jack o’lantern.” Eventually carved turnips, and later carved pumpkins, with something burning for light inside became known as “jack o’lanterns.”


But here’s something else to think about: Why did kids start trick-or-treating on Halloween in the first place?


Just as November 1st was called “All Hallows Day” or “All Saints’ Day,” November 2nd became “All Souls’ Day,” which honored people who had died. In England, one way it was celebrated was by handing out “soul cakes.” These were little cakes given to people who knocked on doors and begged for them in return for promises to pray for the souls of the dead—the precursor of today’s costumed kids begging for candy.

Trick-or-treating became popular in America between 1920 and 1950. It seems to be a mix of the old custom of wearing costumes to scare away evil spirits, and the later custom of begging for soul cakes.

This is briefly the origins of Halloween. Boo!



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