The History of Hallowe'en

Real Estate Agent with Scott Owens Limited

Hallowe'en is a much-anticipated, and largely celebrated holiday in our home.  After having just completed decorating our yard, I thought I would "decorate" my blog in honour of the holiday as well.  Hallowe'en is North Americas' 2nd most popular holiday for decorating; it is estimated that 80 percent of American adults plan to give out candy, and that 93 percent of children plan to go trick-or-treating. But how many of those numbers actually know the history of this holiday?

Hallowe'en has its origins in the ancient Celtic Festival known as "Samhain", a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, which is sometimes regarded as the "Celtic New Year". The term "Hallowe'en" is shortened from "All Hallows' Even" (both "even" and "eve" are abbreviations of "evening ") as it is the eve of "All Hallows' Day", which is now also known as "All Saints Day". It was a day of religious festivities in various northern European Pagan traditions, until Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV moved the old Christian feast of All Saints' Day from May 13 (which had itself been the date of a pagan holiday, the Feast of the Lemures) to November 1, in 835 A.D.  Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Hallowe'en, the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, so spirits of the dead and inhabitants from the underworld were able to walk free on the earth, causing problems such as sickness and/or damaged crops. Costumes and masks were worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them; it was believed necessary to dress as a spirit or otherworldly creature when venturing outdoors to blend in, and this is where dressing in such a manner for Hallowe'en comes from.


Houses were protected against bad spirits with candle lanterns; if the spirits got past the protection of the lanterns, the custom was to offer the spirits parcels of food to leave and spare the house another year. If children approached the door of a house, they were also given offerings of food - Hallowe'en being a harvest festival - which served to ward off the potential spirits that may lurk among them.  This gradually evolved into trick-or-treating because children would knock on their neighbours' doors, in order to gather fruit, nuts, and sweets for the Hallowe'en festival.

The carved pumpkin, lit by a candle inside, is one of Halloween's most prominent symbols in America, and is commonly called a Jack o' Lantern. Originating in Europe, these lanterns were first carved from a turnip or rutabaga. The name Jack-o'-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking old farmer. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into the tree trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack, condemning him to forever wander the earth at night with the only light he had: a candle inside of a hollowed turnip. The carving of pumpkins is associated with Halloween in North America, where pumpkins were readily available and much larger, making them easier to carve than turnips. In America the tradition of carving pumpkins is known to have preceded the Great Famine period of Irish immigration; it was originally associated with harvest time in general in America and did not become specifically associated with Hallowe'en until the mid-to-late 19th century.

It is important (I think) to note that Hallowe'en did not become a holiday in the United States and Canada until the 19th century, where Puritan tradition restricted the observance of many holidays. American almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries do not include Halloween in their lists of holidays. The transatlantic migration of nearly two million Irish following the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849) brought the holiday to the United States. Scottish emigration, primarily to Canada before 1870 and to the United States thereafter, brought the Scottish version of the holiday to each country. Original celebrations of Scottish-American and Irish-American societies were dinners and balls that celebrated their heritages, much as Columbus Day celebrations were more about Italian-American heritage than Columbus. Home parties centred on children's activities, such as bobbing for apples, and various divination games often concerning future romance. Not surprisingly, pranks and mischief were common as well.

While I hope that you found this blog to be informative, please note that it is written from my Irish-Catholic perspective and is, in no respect, a complete history of the holiday.  This blog does not take into account the many cultural variations of the holiday practised in the world today, nor the religious views of the holiday.  For more information on the holiday, I recommend you visit Wikipedia for their very detailed description.

Thanks for reading!  I welcome you to comment about the things that you and your family do to celebrate Hallowe'en...don't be afraid to include pictures!


Comments (6)

Rebecca Schrader
Competitive Insurance of Dundee - Dundee, FL

Scott-Hi, we've already decorated outside...used lots of Spanish Moss and large twigs and branches and we've used tomb stones and all sorts of "creepy creatures" to create a spooky cemetery...lots of spider webs...and a fog machine...And that's just the outside, the inside is coming along quite nicely too...we are very fortunate that this year Halloween falls on a we can have a big party and the kids are all very excited to be able to stay up past their bedtimes and actually enjoy themselves.

Thank you for the educational post too...I'll be sure to share it with my kids today.

Oct 13, 2008 05:29 AM
JL Boney, III
Coldwell Banker - Columbia, SC
Columbia, SC Real Estate

It's always interesting to hear about the beginnings of any tradition. Being of Irish decent myself, I have heard about the beginnings of Halloween, but I always enjoy reading more about it.

Oct 14, 2008 03:03 AM
Scott Owens
Scott Owens Limited - Halifax, NS

Rebecca & Russsel - Thanks for reading.  We are passionate about this "holiday" as well, and go all out to decorate and entertain that night.  We are pleased that it is almost here!

Oct 23, 2008 09:28 AM
Scott Owens
Scott Owens Limited - Halifax, NS


Oct 31, 2008 09:03 AM
Jon Wnoroski
America's 1st Choice RH Realty Co., Inc. - Green, OH
Summit County Realtor

Halloween seems to be a bigger Holiday today.  I've noticed a lot more decorating than ever before in my area.  I still remember celebrating Halloween on the 31st every year regardless which day of the week it fell on.  Today communities have it on the day of their choice and many have it during daylight hours for safety.

Nov 01, 2008 01:53 AM
Scott Owens
Scott Owens Limited - Halifax, NS

Deborah - LOL I had to write it from my perspective due to the wide range of  celebratory methods of other cultures - it is amazing how diverse beliefs are for this holiday.

Jon - I know!  There are still parties going on tonight, even though the actual day was yesterday.  Still, I won't complain - I love the holiday!

Nov 01, 2008 02:20 PM