Originally known as Samhain, Halloween began as an ancient Celtic festival in modern-day Great Britain, Ireland and northern France. It was observed on Nov 1 as a New Year’s celebration, signalling the end of summer and the beginning of winter.
It was believed that the day before, on Oct 31, the lines between the living and the dead became blurred, and the dead returned to earth. The Celts lit bonfires and sacrificed animals and crops to their gods, wearing costumes to hide from ghosts and trying to tell each other’s fortunes.
Centuries later, as Christianity spread throughout Europe, a holiday commemorating Christian martyrs and saints was established by Pope Boniface IV in 609 A.D., known as All Saint’s Day or All Hallows’ Day. Eventually, Pope Gregory III moved the date from May 13 to Nov 1, making Oct 31 All Hallows’ Eve.
Many believe this was done intentionally to replace pagan festivals, but the same traditions of bonfires and costumes survived. However, the traditions were in honor of Jesus Christ and Christian heroes. Eventually, All Hallows’ Eve came to be referred to by a different name, Halloween.
When Europeans immigrated to North America, they brought their holidays with them. At first, the celebration of Halloween was limited. In Massachusetts, Puritans refused to celebrate any holidays with pagan origins, such as Easter and Christmas, but in other colonies, like Maryland, Halloween was still observed.
As many different cultures mixed together, the American version of Halloween became a time to tell ghost stories and host parties in celebration of the harvest. The holiday spread rapidly as Irish immigrants came to the United States and the holiday became widely celebrated throughout the country.
Many of the traditions associated with Halloween came over the next 200 years. Jack o’ lanterns came from an Irish folktale about “Stingy Jack,” a con man who tricked the devil into banning him from hell, but he was also unable to enter heaven. Thus, he roamed the earth with a lantern made of a turnip with hellfire inside it to guide him.
On Halloween night, the Irish would empty out turnips, carving faces into them to protect their houses from other spirits wandering the earth. Over time these turnips were exchanged for pumpkins, as they were easier to carve, and the jack o’ lantern became a staple of Halloween.
The holiday was also known for being a time when many children would cause mischief, terrorizing their towns through vandalism. In 1913, Elizabeth Krebs, hosted a large party on Halloween in the hopes of discouraging kids from vandalizing her garden. Though it was unsuccessful, she hosted another party the next year. This time, she held a costume contest, a parade and a band, and the party successfully prevented mischief-making that night.
This same concept slowly gained traction across the nation, but not enough to stop mischief-makers. A Canadian newspaper article in 1927 featured a story that included the first known use of the phrase trick-or-treat, as a group of children were going around asking for candy and sparing those who obliged from vandalism.
As time progressed, Halloween was slowly separated from its origins as a pagan festival and even as a Christian holiday. Instead, more focus was given to its ability to bring neighborhoods and communities together. Americans today spend approximately $6 billion on Halloween every year.