The Origins of Halloween


The annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York City is the world's largest Halloween parade - image credit "russavia"

The annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York City is the world’s largest Halloween parade – image credit « russavia »

With Halloween only a day away, we got curious about the history this cultural tradition. Largely celebrated in the US, Halloween is known as a day and night where children dress in costume to go “trick-or-treating”, and adults attend costume parties and carve pumpkins. Though it is sometimes not clear why the holiday is celebrated, we thought that as global travelers, we should look into the origin of this fun holiday.

The name “Halloween” comes from the Scottish term for “All Hallows Eve”, the evening before “All Hallows day”, with the word itself dates back to around 1745. Though the specific birth-place of Halloween is not very clear, it is commonly accepted that the tradition is linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain – the end of summer, and the most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar. This celebration marked the end of the Harvest season and the beginning of winter. This time was believed to have thinner boundaries between the world of the living and the other, and when “spirits” could enter this world more easily. It was also commonly believed that the souls of the dead returned to their homes on this one night, and thus families left places set at their tables and by the fire in anticipation.

Children in Halloween costumes, Seattle, Washington, 1943.

Children in Halloween costumes, Seattle, Washington USA, 1943.

Around the 1500’s this harvest festival began to include costumes and disguising, which involved people going house to house in costume while reciting songs in exchange for food. This tradition is speculated to have been started by people impersonating the souls of the dead and receiving offerings on their behalf, the act of which would also protect you from the otherworldly spirits.

This impersonation of spirits eventually included people impersonating malicious spirits and they would play pranks on the neighborhood. From these acts of singing and offering, and trickery, we have the term “Trick-or-treat” which is used commonly today.

After the mass migration of Scottish and Welsh immigrants to the United States in the 1800’s, the festival began to appear in American tradition, and through the decades became a mainstream festival celebrated from coast to coast by people of all cultural and traditional backgrounds.

So find yourself some face paint and get out there tomorrow night ! remember to beware of ghosts.

Bon Voyage Travelers !