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A Celtic-Catholic Hodge-Podge of Halloween History: All Saints Day, Trick or Treat, and Why We Do It

Updated on November 3, 2011
Vintage Halloween postcard, c. 1900-1910
Vintage Halloween postcard, c. 1900-1910

A Halloween Hodge Podge

The origins of Halloween extend far back into history, and it can be difficult at times to pinpoint exactly when or where a particular tradition started. The truth is that the customs and rituals associated with fall, the harvest, summers' end, and the coming winter have been around since pre-historic times, when humans quickly learned how to live according to the seasons. Many of our customs, such as making scarecrows, are of an unknown origin.

Below is a list of facts that I've gathered while trying to piece together this complex puzzle of our history.

Trick-or-treating

-References to the tricks and pranks of Halloween, as well as the ghosts associated with the night, can be found dating back to the late 1700's in Scotland.

-Getting dressed up to go trick-or-treating dates back to the Middle Ages. On All Saints' Day, poor people would go from door to door and offer to pray for the dead in exchange for food to help them through the long winter. This practice has been found all over Europe.

-People used to sprinkle salt on the heads of trick-or-treaters to keep evil away from them.

-Halloween costumes come from the Celtic practice of dressing in animal skins to disguise themselves during Samhain. This was to protect them from ghosts and demons.

Children dressed in Halloween Costumes, reasy for trick-or-treating
Children dressed in Halloween Costumes, reasy for trick-or-treating

The British Isles

-Halloween falls on the end of the first half of the Celtic year.

- While many people link Halloween to the Roman festival of the dead (Parentalia), it is more closely related to the Celtic holiday Samhain, meaning "summer's end".

-The word "Halloween" is first found in the 1500's in a Scottish varient of "All Hallow's Evening". The phrase "All Hallow's Evening" started showing up around the same time.

-The carving of jack-o-lanterns started with the custom of hallowing out and carving turnips, which originated in the British Isles. I have read that this started out during Samhain as a way to frighten the ghosts who were believed to wander on All Hallow's Eve, and that after the pagans were converted to Christians, they carried on the tradition as a way to remember the souls in purgatory. Later, immigrants to the Americas used pumpkins for the same purpose, because they are native to the Americas, and are larger and easier to carve than turnips. The American tradition of making jack-o-lanterns was first recorded in the mid- 1800s, and was an activity for the harvest in general, not becoming synonymous with Halloween until much later.

-In Ireland, the Celts would celebrate this night with bonfires, which were made to burn the bones of ritually sacrificed livestock. The word "bonfire" comes from these "bone fires". Bonfires and fireworks are still a big part of the Halloween celebration in this region.


Snap Apple Night, by Irish artist Daniel Maclise, 1833. Shows a Halloween party where people are bobbing for apples in Blarney, Ireland.
Snap Apple Night, by Irish artist Daniel Maclise, 1833. Shows a Halloween party where people are bobbing for apples in Blarney, Ireland.

The Influence of Catholicism

-All Saints Day was created by the Catholic church to convert pagans. On the day that Pagans would traditionally honor their dead ancestors, Catholics created a day to honor both the dead and Catholic saints.

Illustration from Children's book "Halloween at Merryvale, by Alice Hale Burnett, 1916.
Illustration from Children's book "Halloween at Merryvale, by Alice Hale Burnett, 1916.

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