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The History Behind Halloween Traditions - A Fun Guide

From dressing up in scary costumes to carving pumpkins with creepy faces, Halloween is jam-packed full of fun traditions. But where did these traditions come from and when did they start? We’ve researched the spooky, funny (and sometimes just downright weird!) history behind the greatest Halloween traditions.


Wearing Costumes:

Many of the best Halloween rituals can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”). Samhain was a New Year celebration for the Celts and was celebrated in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France over 2000 years ago. The festival marked the change from the summertime and the harvest to the dark and cold winter months. On 31st October, the Celts believed that spirits and ghosts of the dead returned and walked the Earth.


Naturally, having a bunch of scary ghosts wandering around was all a bit terrifying. And the Celts didn’t want to be terrorized by the ghosts when they went outside. To avoid this, the Celts would dress up in scary costumes when they left the house in the hope that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits and leave them alone. These costumes would often feature animal heads and skins – no wonder the spirits left them alone!


Trick-Or-Treating:

What? Superheroes were a traditional costume worn at Samhain? We wish! - Courtesy Jo Zimny Photos

There are many origin stories behind the ritual of Trick-Or-Treating. But like a lot of Halloween conventions, the most popular theory behind this candy-filled Halloween tradition can also be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain.


Often, Celtic people would leave food outside their homes during Samhain to distract any evil spirits that might take an interest in their homes. For others, ghosts returning to wander the earth wasn’t all terrifying – after all, it could mean the return of the spirit of a dead loved one. Some people left food and lit candles outside their homes to feed the wandering spirits of their loved ones and guide them back to the afterlife. Over time, as people began to dress up as spirits themselves, the tradition was continued by giving the offerings of food to the fake costume-clad spirits when they visited people’s homes.


Another theory about the roots of Trick-Or-Treating came from the traditions of “Mumming” or “Guising”. Here, children would dress up and visit people’s houses to perform jokes, tricks or songs. Sometimes the children would perform the tricks in exchange for food and drink. Other times, the children would receive a treat of nuts, fruit or coins if the people in the household couldn’t guess the child’s real identity under their costume.


Jack-O-Lanterns:

The tradition of carving pumpkins into “Jack-O-Lanterns” came from an Irish myth about a man known as “Stingy Jack”. Stingy Jack had a bad habit of trying to trick the devil. One time he invited the devil for a drink but, being true to his nature of being “stingy”, he asked the devil to pay for it. The devil turned himself into a coin for Stingy Jack to pay with. But Stingy Jack kept the coin for himself. He then placed the coin next to a silver cross to trap the devil.


Using this trick, and others, Stingy Jack made a deal with the devil that he would only let him go free if the devil promised not to take his soul to hell when Stingy Jack died. The devil agreed to Stingy Jacks terms.


A cast of an Irish turnip lantern from early 20th century - Courtesy Rannpháirtí Anaithnid

Unfortunately, when Stingy Jack died, the myth claims that his soul wasn’t permitted into heaven because he had spent his life bargaining with the devil. And true to his promise, the devil wouldn’t let Stingy Jack into hell either.


So Stingy Jack’s soul was stuck with nowhere to go. His ghostly figure was left wandering the earth for all time. The devil gave Stingy Jack a single piece of glowing coal to light his way on his long meanderings. Stingy Jack popped the coal ember in a carved-out turnip and used the vegetable as a lantern. This gave Stingy Jack a new nickname: “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack-O-Lantern”.


People in Ireland carved their own lanterns with scary faces from turnips and other vegetables. They used them to scare away Stingy Jack and other spirits. As time passed and many Irish people moved to America they found an exciting new food to carve – the pumpkin. This new fruit, native to America, was (and still is!) perfect for making the scariest Jack-O-Lanterns.

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