It’s everyone’s favourite October holiday (sorry Thanksgiving), that time when you decorate your home and school with spiders and black cats, dress up in strange costumes, and get candy. But how did all these Halloween traditions get started? Why is October 31st the scariest time of the year?
It’s hard to know exactly when everything got started but most people trace Halloween’s beginnings to 2000 years ago. A big group of people called the Celts (say “kelts”) lived in what would become Great Britain, Ireland and parts of France. They started their new year around November 1. The night before they celebrated with a festival called Samhain (say “SAH-win”). Samhain was a celebration of the harvest and the start of winter, but it was also thought to be a time when ghosts would come out. The Celts would dress in masks and build big bonfires on the night of Samhain, they’d also put out food for ghosts. When the Romans conquered the Celtic lands they noticed that their own festival for the dead was around the same time as Samhain and combined the holidays, keeping the traditions going for a long time.
So how did the holiday get the name Halloween? Over a 1000 years ago the Catholic Church decided to name November 2nd “All Souls’ Day,” a day to honour the dead. They renamed Samhain, which fell on November 1st to “All Saints’ Day,” also known as “All Hallows Day.” The night before, October 31st, became known as “All Hallows Eve,” which got shortened to “Halloween.” Got that?
The idea of a pumpkin carved with a scary face came from Ireland, where people would carve faces into turnips or potatoes to represent a legend about a man named Jack who wandered the countryside with a lantern. The Halloween tradition of a Jack o’ Lantern came to North America, where pumpkins were both plentiful in October and much easier to carve than a turnip.
The best part of Halloween – the free candy – started back with Samhain, when people would leave out food for the ghosts that might be wandering about that night. Centuries later people would give out sweet cakes on All Hallows Eve in exchange for prayers for the dead. By the 19th century in England, children would dress in costumes and perform songs and dances for candy and pennies. When Halloween became popular in North America in the early 20th century, kids didn’t have to perform, but saying “trick or treat” was a reminder that people should give out candy or expect some kind of trick to be played on them!
Today Halloween is far more popular in North America than anywhere else – it’s not celebrated that much in Great Britain where it got its start. For most people, Halloween is about getting to dress up and decorate homes and classrooms. Some kids go door to door in their neighbourhoods to trick or treat, but others celebrate at school or at parties, in costumes that can be scary or just fun. Halloween’s a good way to have fun scaring ourselves – just a little bit – as the nights get longer and the days get colder.