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What is Halloween?

Halloween or “All Hallows Eve” is a yearly celebration observed on October 31st which combines traditions from festivals of the dead such as the Celtic Samhain (Summer’s End) with medieval Catholic observances on the eve of All Saints Day. 

What is the origin of Halloween?
According to popular folklore, November 1st was designated All Saints Day by the Church to “Christianize” pagan festivals of the dead such as Samhain.  Samhain was the last night of the old year according to the ancient calendar of the Celts. On that night it was said that the witches, hobgoblins, warlocks, and other evil spirits walked abroad and devoted themselves to wicked revels.  On Samhain, the medieval Catholic church celebrated “All Hallows Eve” – the night before All Saints Day – by lighting bonfires to symbolize the plight of souls lost in purgatory, and “souling”, which consisted of going door-to-door offering prayers for the dead in exchange for cakes and other treats.  Guising – the custom of going forth dressed in costume – also became associated with All Hallows Eve festivities.  Roots of many modern Halloween customs can be seen in both the Samhain and the All Hallows Eve celebrations.    

Halloween customs
In modern times, Halloween customs have expanded to include costume wearing, telling ghost stories, the playing of pranks, the decorating homes using supernatural and seasonal themes, and – of course – trick or treating.Trick-or-treating is a Halloween tradition in which children go in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as candy or sometimes money, with the question, “Trick or treat?” The word “trick” refers to “threat” to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.Such “guising” was recorded in Scotland at Halloween as far back as 1895, when masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money. The practice of “guising” at Halloween in North America is first recorded in 1911 in Kingston, Ontario.

More on Halloween: 

  • The Spooky Series:  If you have ever felt a chill as you walked past a graveyard, or felt an unseen hand brush against you on a mountaintop, you will love the Spooky Series by .
  • Halloween Jokes and Games:  Withered corpses, a skeleton thief, witches stew and more games for your next Halloween party.   
  • Halloween Stories:  Ghosts and ghoulies and the devil come out to play in this collection of the scariest stories published on American Folklore.
  • Halloween Superstitions:  Halloween is a time when common superstitions, folklore, myths and omens seem to carry more weight, due to a thinning of the wall between the physical and supernatural worlds.
S.E. Schlosser

S.E. Schlosser

S.E. Schlosser is the author of the Spooky Series published by Globe Pequot Press. She has been telling stories since she was a child, when games of “let’s pretend” quickly built themselves into full-length tales acted out with friends. A graduate of both Houghton College and the Institute of Children’s Literature, Sandy received her MLS from Rutgers University while working as a full-time music teacher and a freelance author.