A Brief History: Halloween
Plus 15 Facts You Might Not Know
by Logan Volkert
Halloween is the United States’ second most celebrated holiday behind Christmas. But many people may not know the origins of Halloween—what its name means or where its traditions stem. With Halloween right around the corner, here is a brief history of the wonderfully horrifying holiday and 15 facts you might not know.
Allhallowtide is a three-day Western Christian season comprising three holidays: All Hallows’ Eve (now called Halloween) on October 31, All Hallows’ Day (also called All Saints’ Day) on November 1, and All Souls’ Day on November 2. All Hallows’ Eve was the mark of winter’s beginning and of Allhallowtide, a time to appreciate the dead and set the foundation for the new year.
Halloween itself originates from Samhain, a holiday celebrated by the Celts of Ireland and Britain. The Celts believed that during Samhain, the spirits of the longtime dead returned to visit their homes, and the spirits of the newly dead crossed for the first time into the afterlife. The Celts also believed that during this time, the gods visited from the “otherworld,” tricking and deceiving humankind for their own amusement1.
Thus, the night of Samhain was characterized by fires to warm and light the town, and to ward off evil spirits and tricksters. The Celts wore masks and costumes as disguises and to keep their identities sealed from nonhuman visitors. While this may seem like a night of horror, this period spawned a deeper longing to understand physical and mental health, or, more specifically, the meaning of life and death, and the importance of relationships1. Allhallowtide was birthed to celebrate death, and it grew into Halloween, a holiday that seeks to embrace and appreciate both life and death.
Life, of course, changes, and when the Celts were conquered by the Roman Empire, Samhain changed forever. The Romans adopted the holiday and instilled in it their own traditions. What’s most important, though, is how Halloween reached the United States. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, The Reformation, the period marking the birth of Protestantism, gained many followers who no longer celebrated Allhallowtide. However, protestants in Ireland and Britain still celebrated these traditions, and when they immigrated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, they brought with them Halloween1.
With this brief history of Halloween, here are 15 interesting facts related to the holiday that you might not know.
1) Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, has roots in All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
2) Japan has a rich history of spirits (kami) and demons (Oni). These kami range from terrifying or annoying ghosts (yurei) to evil tricksters from the underworld.
3) The tradition of lighting Jack-O-Lanterns stems from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a man who was banished from both Heaven and Hell because of his deceitfulness.
4) The practice of trick-or-treating originates from the British tradition of giving food to beggars.
5) The bobbing for apples party game originates from a Roman tradition celebrating Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.
6) Reese’s Cups are the most eaten candy on Halloween. Skittles are second, M&M’s are third.
7) Hocus Pocus is the most watched film on Halloween. The Nightmare Before Christmas is second, Beetlejuice is third.
8) Universal Studios produced a series of iconic horror films from 1923 to 1960. Notable movie monsters include Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
9) Universal movie monsters have influenced various facets of popular culture, including The Munstersand a General Mills cereal line!
10) The Addams Familyis based off a The New Yorker cartoon by Charles Addams, who originally left his characters unnamed.
11) Michael Myers, the silent killer from the 1978 horror hit, Halloween, wore a William Shatner mask that was painted white. He was also referred to in the screenplay as “The Shape.”
12) Illinois produces around 40% of the United States’ pumpkins.
13) Americans spent $8 billion for Halloween in 2020 and are projected to spend an estimated $10 billion in 2021.
14) Some animal shelters ban the adoption of black cats on Halloween, as they fear for the safety of the cats.
15) The superstition of black cats being unlucky originates from the Puritans’ belief that Salem witches could transform into black cats.
Happy Halloween! Hopefully, you learned something new, interesting, or spooky. At the very least, the next time Michael Myers frightens your significant other on date night, you both can rest easy knowing that he’s nothing but a guy in a spray-painted Captain Kirk mask.
- “Halloween.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/Halloween.