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The Origins of Halloween Traditions

Updated on October 19, 2014
Yea this is pretty much all Halloween Symbols and Traditions
Yea this is pretty much all Halloween Symbols and Traditions | Source

Ever wondered about the origins of Halloween traditions such as dressing up in costumes, trick or treating and jack o’ lanterns. What about the origins of traditional Halloween foods and games such as candy corn, bobbing for apples? Or the meaning of the symbols like skulls and black cats. Well you don’t have to wonder anymore. Here is the history behind many Halloween traditions and symbols.

Halloween trick or treat bag
Halloween trick or treat bag | Source

Trick or Treating

This tradition dates all the way back to All Souls’ Day parades in England. During these parades poorer residents would go door to door and beg people for food. Oftentimes people will give them “soul cakes” pastries with the promise that the poor people will pray for these peoples’ dead family members. The church encouraged this practice which was known as going-a-souling, as a way to discontinue the pagan practice of leaving food and wine for ghosts. Eventually this tradition became associated with kids and these kids were given money and ale along with soul cakes/food.

Halloween costume
Halloween costume | Source

Dressing up in Costumes

This tradition has roots in Celtic traditions, specifically Samhain. The start of winter was a bitter and harsh time that along with the reality of death, starvation and freezing. This time also saw the fear of darkness, death, and superstitions. The Celts believed that ghosts came back and roam the earth. Ancient peoples were afraid and didn't want to meet ghosts, so they would wear costumes and masks, so if a ghost happen to pass by, it will think these people were one of them. Ghosts will also have a way of returning back home (according to the ancient Celts). To prevent this, people put out bowls of food so to discourage ghosts from entering their homes.

Jack o Lanterns and pumpkins
Jack o Lanterns and pumpkins | Source

Pumpkins and Jack o’ Lantern connection

How is pumpkins and jack o’ lantern related? Well first you have to know the origins of the Jack o’ Lantern tale. The jack-o’-lantern tradition origins in Irish folklore from a story about a man name Stingy Jack. In this story Stingy Jack was a drunk trickster who made a couple of tricks and bets with the Devil.

Jack o Lantern close-up
Jack o Lantern close-up | Source
Scary jack o' lantern
Scary jack o' lantern | Source

Jack o” Lantern Folklore

In this story Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Stingy aka cheap Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he asked and convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so Jack can pay for both of their drinks. Even so, Stingy Jack, the cheap trickster didn’t keep his word and he decided to keep the coin (the Devil) for himself. To prevent the devil from changing back he help a cross next to this coin.

Eventually Jack freed the Devil on the condition that the Devil couldn’t get revenge on him for a year. He also made the devil agree that if he died he cannot collect his soul. The next year Jack tricked the devil again. This time tricking the devil climb a tree to get a piece of fruit for him. Before the devil could climb down, Jack carved a cross on the tree and made the devil promise not to seek revenge on him for 10 years.

Ten years went by with Jack dead now and no place for Jack’s soul to go. The Devil can’t claim his soul and God doesn’t want him in heaven. What is Stingy Jack to do? The devil gives Jack a burning coal and sent him off to roam earth with no place to go. The burning coal must be too hot for Jack so he put the coal in a turnip he carved out (fashioned it to serve as a lantern) and began roaming the earth. Along the way, people referred to his spirit (in ghost form) as Jack of the Lantern, and later Jack o’ Lantern.

The Irish and then Scottish peoples therefore began making their own jack o lanterns carving scary faces it into other vegetables like potatoes and turnips (the English used beets). They placed them near doors and windows to scare off Stingy Jack. The tradition made its way to America and they did the same accept using pumpkins.

Carving Pumpkin
Carving Pumpkin | Source

Pumpkin carving

Pumpkins weren't always seen as a Halloween tradition. Even so, the pumpkin native to North America became incorporated into autumn and Halloween. The influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants with their jack lanterns traditions began to flood in and the modern Halloween jack o lantern pumpkin carving was born.

Even so, with the new tradition of pumpkin carving peoples found an angle that allowed it to be turned into a big business. In the 1960s' John Howden, a farmer from Massachusetts introduced a new pumpkin breed perfect for carving on Halloween. Soon the carved Howden pumpkin paraphernalia (pumpkin cakes, candy, stickers, etc.) was seen everywhere and a new Halloween tradition is born.

Apple tree
Apple tree | Source
Candy corn
Candy corn | Source

Halloween Foods

Most of these traditional Halloween food and games have origins in Europe (specifically Ireland, England and Scotland).


In Roman pagan mythology Pomona was a goddess of harvest and (which includes trees and fruits which they took a day to honor). Pomona’s symbol was an apple. Apple is often eaten in some form on Halloween (cookies, cakes, pies, candies, etc.). Candied Apple and apple cider is a great Halloween/autumn treat

Corn/Candy corn

Corn (also known as chicken feed) has its origins in America. Corn is indigenous to North America that comes to harvest in the fall/autumn time. This in turn makes it a traditional autumn treat! Variations of corn is popular such as popcorn. Even so, the candy corn became popular after WWII and now a go to Halloween Treat.

Barnbrack- is an Irish traditional Halloween food that dates back to Celtic times. Specifically barnbrack is a fruitcake where a muslin (a sheer cotton fabric) wrapped treat (like a wedding ring) is baked inside the cake. Barnbrack contains raisins and is said to foretell the eater’s future.

Unwed adults bobbing for apples
Unwed adults bobbing for apples | Source

Halloween Games

Snap-apples- a game where an apple is tied to a string and then tied to a tree or door-frame. Players would all take turns trying to take a bite out of the apple. The first to bite the apple wins!

Knock a dolly- a prank where children will knock on doors then run way before the person opens it to answer it.

Bobbing for apples- is a game where people bob (try to catch) apples submerged in bucket or water. The first to get an apple wins! This game is old and it can be pinpointed back to desperate unmarried folks (specifically women). Unmarried folks often relied on games as superstitions that can foresee future events (such as getting married). The winner of these games was predicted to be first to wed.

Halloween: Witches in brooms, Black cats, graveyards and tombstones
Halloween: Witches in brooms, Black cats, graveyards and tombstones | Source

Symbolism behind Popular Halloween Symbols

Black Cats, Vampires, and Skulls are some of the popular symbols can be found on Halloween food, costumes, and decorations. But what do they mean?

Witches, Wizards, Vampires, Ghosts, Ghouls, Goblins These symbols all symbolizes supernatural beings that all have the power to connect and communicate with the other realm. They all are connected to death and evil (especially ghosts and vampires).

Spiders, Bats, and Black Cats All symbols that symbolizes darkness, and the night. Plus cats are associated with witches and bats to vampires.

Bones, Skulls, Tombstones, Blood, Fires All symbolizes death in some form.

Overall Halloween traditions, foods, games, and symbols all are derived from a bunch of countries (mostly Europe/United Kingdom). Even so, I hope you learned a lot! Thank you for reading!

What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

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    • profile image

      Sanjay 2 years ago

      Blimey, I am late to the party. I've just discovered the show with your final poadcst or is it all a dream?Anyway, I shall work my way through the archive, thanks for putting the work in, and be well.

    • deecoleworld profile image

      deecoleworld 3 years ago from USA

      @ForLoveofCupcakes: thank you!!!! If you're interested in reading more on Halloween, try my Halloween-like traditions around the world hub and my history of Halloween, it's filled with interesting information

    • ForLoveofCupcakes profile image

      Jamie Jensen 3 years ago from Chicago

      Great information about Halloween; you've really included everything in here! I love the Jack-o-lantern lore!! :) Voting up!

    • deecoleworld profile image

      deecoleworld 3 years ago from USA

      thank you!!!!

    • yasirchohan profile image

      Yasir chohan 3 years ago from Reisterstown

      Oh your pictures are lovely, and your hub is well organized. I love Halloween, and its always great to learn more about it!