Haunting Halloween: History, Origins, and Traditions of America's Halloween

Halloween is a seriously popular holiday. There is no denying that it has its hold on Americans! We love dressing up, the decorations, scary movies, the parties, and of course the Trick or Treating! But how did this scary-fun holiday get its start here in America?

The Dragon Queen and her dragon!

It Starts in ancient Europe

The idea of Halloween is actually really old. It's based on a pre-Christian holiday called Samhain; which has its roots in the Celtic culture. The idea behind Samhain is that around the time Fall is ending and Winter is beginning the "veil between the living and the dead" is lifted. This means that the spirits of the dead can walk among the living. So, for the ancient Celts this was a frightening notion! What if evil spirits made their way to your door?!? And folks, that's where the idea of the Jack-o-lantern was born!


Yep, the ancient Celts and then Irish and British, and Scottish folks started carving frightening faces into items that they could find in nature, like gourds, radishes, and parsnips. The plan was that the creepily carved vegetables would scare off the evil spirits that were roaming free on Samhain (Halloween) night. Think of it sort of like a gargoyle on a Medieval cathedral.

Centuries later the idea of Samhain arrived here in North America with the first colonists from the British Isles in the 1600s. They quickly discovered a native plant that makes a far superior jack-o-lantern to anything back in Europe. You guessed it! The pumpkin!!

Costumes and Trick or Treating

From the reading I did the idea behind costumes is kind of the same thing as the concept of the jack-o-lantern. If you are dressed up as someone or something other than yourself, well then that evil spirit who may have been you enemy in life, can't recognize you. Win!

After Christianity arrived in Europe the holiday stuck around but changed slightly into a day to pray for the dead. Monks would travel door to door saying prayers and collecting "soul cakes" in exchange for their prayers. And now I know you know where this going.... yep... over time this practice evolved into Trick or Treating!

From Europe to the Americas

Although pretty much every historian agrees that the origins of Halloween are altogether a bit murky and not exactly clear, we can all agree that it's roots lie with Samhain and then the merging of ancient Celtic religion and Christianity. The practices around this Pagan turned slightly Christian holiday came with the colonists as they arrived on the shores of North America in the 1600 and 1700's. I find it interesting that although the roots of the holiday are European, the modern holiday is much more popular in America than it is Europe!

Happy Halloween!

If you are interested in learning more about the subject here's some additional reading:

What is Samhain? What to Know About the Ancient Pagan Festival That Came Before Halloween

Halloween: Origins, Meaning, & Traditions

Samhain: The Celtic Roots of Halloween