The evolution of Halloween


23rd Oct 2020 Halloween

The evolution of Halloween

Where did the spookiest of seasons first begin? Take a dive with us into the spooky history of Halloween…

From trick-or-treating to pumpkin carving, everybody has their favourite spooky season activity; however, how many of us have taken a moment to think about where these traditions come from?

The answers lie in Halloween’s murky past, with many of our modern rituals dating back thousands of years. In order to learn more about our most mystifying and frightening festival, the experts at Quizlet have analysed hundreds of user-made study sets to uncover how our much-loved Halloween traditions came to be.


Origins of Halloween and why we dress up

History of Halloween
Image: Illustration to Robert Burns' poem "Halloween" by JM Wright and Edward Scriven. Public domain

Halloween’s history finds its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated around 2,000 years ago. This often involved costumes of a kind, with celebrants donning robes made of animals’ heads and skins. The day marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter and the last day before the new year for Celts. They believed that this was when the border between worlds of the living and the dead was at its weakest, which is part of the reason why we associate Halloween with all things spooky today.

Interestingly, when people believed that Halloween was a time when the border between worlds was at its thinnest, they naturally feared encountering ghosts. To avoid being recognised by any wandering spirits, people would wear masks to conceal their identity, or so that they might be mistaken for other ghosts.


How Halloween got its name

All Hallows Eve in Bangladesh - families lighting candles
A celebration of All Hallows' Eve in Bangladesh. Image public domain

You may have heard Halloween referred to by the more eerie sounding name, All Hallows' Eve. This is because the festival of Samhain took place the day before the Christian celebration of All Saints Day, on 1st November, also known as All Hallows Eve.

The name of the pagan festival was adapted to reflect the prevalence of Christianity, but it retained its reputation for the scary and supernatural.


Skulls and skeletons

skeleton on porch step for halloweem

Skulls and skeletons are more than just components of a classic Halloween costume, they have been part of Halloween tradition since its pagan roots. For Celts, bones were a symbol of mortality, which made them an integral part of the festival. Later, bones became part of All Saints Day, which started under the Roman Empire and celebrated those who have passed.

As well as being a symbol of death and the afterlife, skeletons were also said to serve as a reminder of the presence of temptation and evil in daily life.


Apple bobbing

girls laugh while apple bobbing in the sunshine

Some of the traditions that we still know today have ancient origins.

Apple bobbing is still a popular Halloween activity, although not as many people know about its Roman roots. Pomona, the Goddess of fruit and trees, whose symbol is the apple, was honoured by the Romans in late October.

It is likely that this celebration combined with the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain to create the popular Halloween activity, which has endured for hundreds of years.


Soul cakes and trick or treating

trick or treating

Recorded as early as medieval times, soul cakes were given to children who went from door to door in return for singing prayers for the deceased members of the household.

The cakes were small and round with a hole in the middle, a shape that was meant to signify eternity. This was referred to as "going-a-souling" and was widespread in England until the early 1930s. Later, "souling" evolved into the more familiar tradition of "trick-or-treating".



pumpkin carving

Carved pumpkins are another familiar Halloween tradition with a long history. Carved lanterns originated in Ireland, where hollowed-out turnips with a candle were used to light the way on the night.

In the 1840’s, when large numbers of Irish people moved to the US, they discovered that pumpkins offered a plentiful alternative to turnips and the modern-day "jack o’ lantern" was born.


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter