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The History of Halloween Traditions

Wed, Oct 7th, 2020

The History of Halloween Traditions

Halloween is a day that children look forward to every year. For most kids, it rivals Christmas and Thanksgiving as their favorite holiday. The anticipation of going door-to-door and collecting candy dressed as ghouls, goblins or their favorite Disney character is unparalleled. But how did the tradition of trick-or-treating start?

Legend says that Halloween originated in the British Isles out of the Pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain. Samhain was known as the final harvest of the year and the ancient Celtic New Year. It translates to "end of summer", and would occur at the end of October. It was believed that spirits would rise from the dead and mingle with the living on this day. The Celts left food at their doors to encourage good spirits and wore masks to scare off the bad ones.


From the Celtic times up until the medieval ages, many people believed fairies (faeries) would run free on the Eve of Samhain. These mischievous fairies rewarded good deeds, but at the same token, did not like to be crossed. They would disguise themselves as beggars, going from door to door asking for handouts. Those who gave them food were rewarded, and those who didn't were pranked, heckled and subjected to unpleasant misfortunes.

On All Souls' Day in medieval times, people would make a simple bread dessert called "soul cakes". In a custom called "souling", children would go door to door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. Every cake a child collected, they would say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. They would sing a "soul cake song" that went "trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat". Sounds familiar, doesn't it? That song is still bellowed by children every Halloween night to this day!


Have you ever heard of the Irish folks' tale, Stingy Jack? Jack was notorious for being a cheapskate, who on multiple occasions, avoided losing his soul to the devil by tricking him. On once instance, Jack convinced Satan to climb the tree for some apples, then cut crosses all around the trunk so he couldn't climb down. The devil promised to leave Jack alone forever, but only if he would let him down from the tree, so that's what Jack did.

When Jack died, he was turned away from Heaven, due to his life of sin. But he stayed out of Hell because of his agreement with the Devil. Jack was cursed to travel as a spirit in limbo. As Jack left the gates of Hell, the Devil tossed him a piping hot ember in a hollowed-out turnip to light the way in the darkness, and Jack wandered off into the world. According to the Irish legend, you might see Jack on All Hallows' Eve, still carrying the turnip lantern through the darkness.

Traditional jack-o'-lanterns, hollowed-out turnips with an ember or light inside, became a very popular Halloween decoration in Ireland and Scotland a few hundred years ago. It turns out, pumpkins are much easier to carve, so people began carving pumpkins instead of turnips.

Be Safe

Whether you are going trick-or-treating or passing out candy this Halloween, please be safe. Respect the families coming to your door by quickly putting a mask on before distributing candy. If your children are out collecting candy, try to emphasize social distancing from other groups of people. Halloween can still be fun, it's just a little different this year. Have a great Halloween!