From lanterns to legends: The history of Halloween traditions

By in Features

Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition — along with a lot of strange traditions. From dressing up in wacky costumes to knocking on the door of strangers’ houses and accepting candy, Halloween is really quite odd. So, where did all these traditions come from?

The ancient Celtic origins of Halloween

It’s believed that the tradition of Halloween itself originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts, who lived over 2,000 years ago, inhabited the area that is now known as Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. They celebrated their New Year on Nov. 1, which marked the end of summer and the harvest as well as the beginning of a dark and cold winter. Winter was associated with human death and the Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, the boundary between the world of the living and the dead became blurred and ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

It was believed these ghosts caused trouble, and one of the main forms of trouble was to damage the crops. The Celts also believed that the presence of these spirits made it easier for the Druids, or ancient Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. These prophecies were a source of comfort and direction during the winter, as the Celts were dependent on the natural world.

To commemorate all this, the Druids would build a large sacred bonfire where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic divines. During this celebration costumes were worn, which typically consisted of animal heads and skins — making this event the birthplace of not only Halloween itself, but also the costumes.

The Roman Empire

By AD 43, the Roman Empire conquered most of Celtic territory and over the 400 years that they ruled Celtic land, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with Samhain. One of which is the birthplace of a well-known Halloween tradition — bobbing for apples.

A day of festivities honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, was established. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and this symbol combined with the festivities led to the game of bobbing for apples, which is still practiced today in celebration of Halloween.

The spread of Christianity

By the ninth century, the influence of Christianity had spread to Celtic lands and this led to the combination of the church’s All Souls Day on Nov. 2 and Samhain. All Souls Day was a day to honour the dead, and was celebrated similarly to Samhain as it included bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils.

The All Souls Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallomas, and to match this day, the traditional night of Samhain began to be called All-hallows Eve and eventually Halloween.

Halloween makes it to North America

The beliefs and customs of varying European ethnic groups as well as North America’s indigenous population began to mesh and created the American version of Halloween we know today. One of the first celebrations included play parties. These were public events held in celebration of the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, dance and sing. These Halloween festivities also included ghost stories and by the mid 19th century, annual autumn festivals were common.

It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century when America was flooded with new immigrants, many of whom were Irish, that Halloween became celebrated nationally. Taking from Irish traditions and popularized by the Irish Potato Famine, Americans began to dress up and go from house to house asking for food or money — a practice which has now become today’s trick-or-treating.

However, as years went by, America wanted to move away from the religious and superstitious overtones of Halloween and focus more on the community aspect of Halloween. By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular community-oriented holiday with town parties and parades. With a high number of children born in the 1950s baby boom, Halloween activities started to become more focused on events in neighborhoods and at home and less town-wide, which led to the revival of trick-or-treating.

Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for neighborhoods to celebrate, along with keeping kids busy and deterring them from playing tricks. Since then, the tradition of trick-or-treating has grown immensely and has become America’s second largest commercial holiday behind Christmas, as it’s estimated Americans spend $6 billion annually on it.


One of the most well-known and practiced Halloween traditions is the carving of pumpkins. Although it is loved and tons of fun, the idea of the Jack-O-Lantern comes from a dark and rather tragic fable.

The Celtic folklore tells the story of a drunken farmer named Jack who tricked the devil. His trickery led him to be turned away from both heaven and hell after his death and left Jack to wander in purgatory. As Jack had no choice but to stay in the darkness of purgatory, he made a lantern from a turnip and a burning lump of coal the devil had tossed to him from hell.feature-08

Jack used the lantern to guide his lost soul, and so, the Celts believed that placing Jack-O-Lanterns outside would help guide lost spirits home when they wander the streets on Halloween. As well, the scary faces carved were believed to help scare evil spirits away. Turnips were replaced with pumpkins because during this time, turnips were hard to find and the use of pumpkins eventually just stuck.


Born out of a Pagan goddess, witches are an enduring symbol of Halloween. The goddess, also known as the Crone, was honored during Samhain. The Crone was known as “the old one” and the “Earth Mother” who symbolized wisdom, change and the turning of the seasons. This wise old crone has now morphed into the haggard, warty-nosed, cackling witch we associate with Halloween today.

The witch’s broomstick has its roots in medieval myths — during medieval times many women were accused of being witches and friends of the devil. These accusations led to the Malleus Maleficarum in Germany in 1486, which stated all witches should be killed.

To avoid being caught and killed, women accused of being a witch would often hide in the woods. Since they walked long ways through the woods to find hiding places and they were often elderly women, they used walking sticks, which were sometimes substituted by brooms.

Black cats

The black cat’s symbolic importance tied with Halloween again dates back to medieval times and is tied to the idea of witches. Many women who were accused of being a witch were women who had a cat. It was believed that these cats were a familiar spirit, or an animal shaped demon, which was given to witches from the devil.

There is also a second myth surrounding the idea of black cats. This myth held that Satan turned himself into a cat when socializing with the witches. Although black cats are still associated with Halloween, in places such as Scotland, Ireland and England, it’s considered good luck if a black cat crosses your path.


Bats were first associated with Halloween because they were likely to show up during Samhain festivals, as the big bonfires would draw them in. Later on, when vampire legends became tied to Halloween, the idea of bats being involved with Halloween became solidified.

Like black cats, medieval folklore described bats as witches’ familiar spirits and believed that seeing bats on Halloween was a threatening sign. One myth stated that if a bat was seen flying around one’s house three times that someone in that house would die soon. Another myth was that if a bat flew into your house on Halloween, it was believed your house was haunted because ghosts had let the bat in.

Bridget Morrison / Culture Editor

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor