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Halloween Traditions and What They Really Mean

Updated on October 6, 2014
Dark Halloween decorations
Dark Halloween decorations | Source

The History Behind Trick-or-Treating

Trick-or-treating, also known as souling or guising, dates back to the Middle Ages. Those who were poor would go from door to door, sometimes wearing a mask, souling on the night of Hallowmas (November 1st), and in return for the "treats" they received they would pray for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2nd). This practice first started in Ireland and Britain and would later start in Scotland in the 1800’s. The first mention of guising in America was in 1911.

The word "trick" really means "threat". If no treat was given to the trick-or-treaters they would commit an act mischief on the homeowners or their property. This usually took place if the form of something being removed from the yard, such as a wagon wheel, or a gate door, which the homeowners would later find somewhere in the street. As a result those who suffered from the "tricks" would be sure to offer a "treat" the following year. Many people referred to this act of vandalism as a form of simple harmless fun for the children.

The term "treat" represents the treat that was to be given.


Devil's Night

One "holiday" that may have come about due to the "tricking" is Devil’s Night.

Devil’s Night, which dates back as far as the 1930’s, takes place on the night before Halloween. It is a night dedicated to the destruction of property. This destruction first began as simple crimes such as egging houses, toilet papering trees, or leaving rotten vegetables on door steps, but soon grew to more serious crimes such as arson. Detroit, Michigan saw more arson then any other town, with a reported 880 fires in 1984. Thanks to curfews and programs such as Angel’s Night the number of fires was greatly reduced to 169 by 2010.

Angel's Night is a program dedicated to keeping the city and it's people safe. The citizens of Detroit volunteer their time to patrol the area and keep a watch on neighborhoods for any crime or vandalism associated with Devil's Night.


Traditional Games

Bobbing For Apples

To start the game you fill a large basin with water and place the apples inside. Players then try to grab, or bob, for an apple using only their teeth. Besides being a highly unsanitary game (think of those kids that may be sick and leave germs in the water) this is also a game of divination. As the games rules state girls who place the apple they plucked from the water under their pillow will dream of their future husband.

Other variations include hanging the apples by a string or kneeling while holding a fork between your teeth and trying to drop the fork into the apple.

A traditional Scottish game is to peel an apple in one long strip and toss the peel over yours shoulder. The peel is said to land in the shape of the first letter of your future spouse’s name.

Bobbing for apples
Bobbing for apples | Source

Fortune Telling

Fortune telling became very popular during the early 1900’s. Someone would enter a dark room and place their hand on an ice cube and then on a platter that lay nearby. The platter contained pieces of paper cut into different shapes. Their "fortune" would then stick to their hand and they would determine their future by the shape they had chosen.

List of Fortunes:

Dollar sign-wealth







4-leaf clover-good luck


Ring-early marriage



Special Treats

Another form of telling the future was to bake miniature cakes and sweet and hide items such as coins and other trinkets inside. Inside of one of the treats a ring was hidden. The one who found the ring was believed to be the next one to marry.

A postcard depicting a young girl hoping to see her future husband
A postcard depicting a young girl hoping to see her future husband | Source

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

Unmarried women were often told that if they wanted to see their future husband they could sit in a dark room on Halloween night and gaze into a mirror. If they were to marry they would see their husbands face, but if they were to die before marriage they would see a skull. This form of divination was soon so popular that postcards and greeting cards depicting it were being sold.

Another postcard, this one depicting a woman gazing into the mirror in hopes of learning her future and weather she is to marry before she dies .
Another postcard, this one depicting a woman gazing into the mirror in hopes of learning her future and weather she is to marry before she dies . | Source
One of the more friendly looking pumpkins along side what looks to be a sick pumpkin
One of the more friendly looking pumpkins along side what looks to be a sick pumpkin | Source
One of the more traditional jack-o-lanterns
One of the more traditional jack-o-lanterns | Source


As Halloween rolls around people start to get out the craving knives and pick out pumpkins for the traditional jack-o-lantern. Those scary and sometimes sweet looking candle holders to add to the decorations around the house. Although the jack-o-lantern may be nice to look at, and may remind us that Fall is finally here, they to have a dark story. According to Irish legend a man by the name of Jack died, but he could not enter heaven because he was a bad-tempered and miserable man, nor could he enter hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, he must walk the earth with only a lantern until judgment day. The jack-o-lantern originally represented spirits and souls released from purgatory, but now represents Jack, and the candle inside represents his lantern.


Viewed today as a chance to hang out around on the fire with friends and family, the origin of the bonfire is both dark and gruesome. Villagers would leave there homes to gather around a bonfire, which had been lit in honor of the gods they believed to be real. They would make sacrifices, using vegetables and animal bones, not only please theses gods but to relieve themselves of sickness or misfortune.

It was believed that on the night of Halloween, spirits were free to roam the earth. The fire, along with the costumes worn by the people who attended, were believed to confuse and scare away the evil spirits. After the festivities were over it was customary to take some of the embers from the fire home to burn in the home fireplace. Doing so was believed to ensure safety over the house and those who lived there.

Fact: The word bonfire is a combination of the words 'bone' and 'fire'. It was derived from the ritual of burning bones.



My goal in writing this article was in hopes that it would bring a little more understanding to the history and origins of the traditions and games that have been watered down over the years and taken so lightly. From trick-or-treating to bobbing for apples. From Jack-o-lanterns to bonfires, I hope this brief bit of knowledge sheds a little light on the subject and brings a bit of new information your way.

© 2014 Bakerosity


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