What do you think of when you hear the word Halloween? Eating an endless amount of treats, telling scary stories, or carving giant pumpkins may pop into your mind. October 31 brings a day full of costumes and trick-or-treating, but why do we celebrate Halloween? This spooky holiday dates back a couple of thousand years and has changed quite a bit over time.

Ancient Origins

October 31 was originally called “All Hallows’ Eve” and was later shortened to one word, Halloween. The celebration of Halloween started about 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, meaning “summer’s end” in Gaelic. 

Samhain was the end of harvest, which signified the coming of winter. Initially, the festival was celebrated in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. The Celts’ New Year would begin on November 1. For this reason, they believed the worlds between the living and the dead combined right before the New Year. Celts honored the dead by lighting bonfires, wearing costumes to hide from the bad spirits, and carving gourds to make lanterns.

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III, in an attempt to get away from pagan rituals, instituted All Hallows Day on November 1 to honor all those who had died. The day before All Hallows Day became All Hallows Eve, later shortened to Halloween. 

Halloween spread to the U.S. by Irish immigrants who left Europe during the Potato Famine, which took place from about 1845-1850. The holiday became a time for telling ghost stories and doing pranks. In the 1900s, Halloween wasn’t a day of candy, costumes, and fun, but was rather a day for mischief and bad behavior among kids. In an attempt to fix this problem, the trend of trick-or-treating was introduced. Families could avoid being tricked and pranked by offering candy to kids; however, trick-or-treating still wasn’t practiced by children across America, and certainly wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today.

Modern Traditions

Trick-or-treating has its roots from when the poor would disguise themselves and go door-to-door asking for food or money in exchange for prayers. This practice was often referred to as “guising” or “souling.” Children adopted the tradition and began dressing up in costumes and singing songs to receive offerings. Throughout the early to mid-1900s, many different gifts were given; however, you can thank Charlie Brown and Donald Duck for the trick-or-treating we know and love today. 

In 1951, modern trick-or-treating got a big boost from a Peanuts comic strip — which featured Charlie Brown — and, in 1952, from a Donald Duck animated short. Both the comic and the cartoon gave examples of how proper trick-or-treating should be done. The idea quickly became popular among kids everywhere, with candy quickly becoming the dominant Halloween treat from 1952 onward.

For the last 70 years, not many people think of Halloween as celebrating the end of summer and it’s become totally about costumes, candy, and maybe watching a scary movie or two. 

Whether you’re trick-or-treating or going to a costume party, now you know the background on why Halloween is so popular today. So, get out your best costume and a bowl of candy because October 31 is coming up soon!