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Halloween Traditions Explained

So where did all these weird traditions having to do with Halloween come from? Carving pumpkins, trick-or-treating, and wearing scary costumes are some of the time-honored traditions of Halloween and most people think they're all American. And they are now – but Halloween didn't start out American. Nope. The Halloween holiday has Irish roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “SAH-win”), a pagan religious celebration to welcome the harvest at the end of summer. To ward off ghosts, people would light bonfires and wear costumes. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor saints.

Seeing Ghosts

Soon after, All Saints Day came to incorporate some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before All Saints Day was known as All Hallows Eve, and later, Halloween. Celtic people believed that during the festival of Samhain, spirits walked the Earth. And the tradition of All Saints' Day perpetuated the idea of the living coming into contact with the dead around the same time of year so ghosts are now a part of the Halloween tradition.

Wearing Scary Costumes

Naturally, folks wanted to keep those ghosts away. So the Celtics started wearing costumes to scare those mean old ghosts.

Carving Jack-o’-Lanterns

People didn't always carve pumpkins. Rather, the tradition started in Ireland using turnips! Allegedly, the tradition is based on a legend about a man named Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. But when Jack died, he learned that Heaven did not want his soul either, so he was forced to wander the Earth as a ghost for eternity. The Devil gave Jack a burning lump of coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Locals eventually began carving scary faces into their own turnips to frighten away evil spirits. When the tradition migrated to North America, people figured out pumpkins were a lot easier to carve than turnips. But hmmm... maybe here in Singapore where pumpkins are crazy expensive and rot easily, carving turnips might be a good idea.


The history of trick-or-treating isn't as obvious, but generally there are three theories.

The first thought is that Celtic people left food out to appease the spirits traveling the Earth at night. And then some folks got smart and started dressing as these unearthly beings to nab some of the treats themselves. I'm guessing some kids were behind that one!

The second theory says the candy boon stems from the Scottish practice of guising. What's that? Well - during the Middle Ages, children and poor adults would collect food and money from local homes in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers dropped the prayers in favor of non-religious practices with the inclusion of songs, jokes, and other “tricks.”

And yet another theory argues that modern American trick-or-treating stems from belsnickeling, a German-American Christmas tradition where children would dress up in costume and try to stump their neighbors to see if they could figure out who they were. The kids got food or treats if nobody could guess their identities.


So where does the candy come in? Back in the old days, folks handed out fresh fruit or potatoes even, but carrying around bags of apples wasn't the easiest chore. Plus, let's face it: kids prefer sweets. So when candy companies started making candy in bulk back in the 1950s, it seemed like a natural fit. Of course, candy wasn't always wrapped in neat little individual packets.That actually has a bit of a sad history. Back in the 70s, a few kids were poisoned. I actually remember a kid who got a razor blade in a big, homemade popcorn ball. Shocking, right? So to make sure the candy was safe, candy makers starting wrapping them individually.And what a boon for the candy makers!Americans purchase nearly 600 million pounds of candy each year for Halloween. That's the equivalent to the weight of six Titanic ships. You know who else likes Halloween candy? Dentists!

Candy Apples

One of my favorite fall treats was actually invented accidentally back in 1908 by William W. Kolb, a candymaker in Newark, New Jersey. Kolb was reportedly experimenting with red cinnamon candy for Christmas and he dipped apples on sticks into the red glaze and put them in his shop window to showcase his new candy. But instead of selling the candies, he ended up selling the apples because people thought they looked good enough to eat. They were a hot item at Halloween starting in the early 1900s and they remained popular up until the 1970s when things like the razor blade in the popcorn ball made homemade treats unpopular.

Candy Corn

A candymaker at the Wunderle Candy Company in Philadelphia is sometimes credited with inventing the tri-colored candy in the 1880s. But candy corn did not become a widespread sensation until the Goelitz Company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. Candy corn was originally called “Chicken Feed” and it sold in boxes with the slogan “Something worth crowing for.” And originally, it was just a fall candy because it was associated with corn. Candy corn later became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating grew in popularity in the US during the 1950s.

Black Cats

So why are the cute little kitties considered bad luck? Well, the idea of being spooked by black cats dates back to the Middle Ages, when these black felines were considered a symbol of the Devil. Making matters worse? Accused witches were often found to have cats, particularly black ones. People began to believe that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”– supernatural entities that would assist in their practice of dark magic. The poor black kitties have had a bad rep ever since.

Black and Orange

Interestingly, the big Halloween colors don't actually have to do with demons, but rather the harvest season. For the Celts, black represented the “death” of summer while the orange symbolized the autumn harvest season.


So where does the trick part of trick-or-treating come in? There has long been a pre-Halloween tradition known as “Devil’s Night” which some believe started as part of May Day celebrations which has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween! Ha. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, also included good-natured mischief. When Irish and Scottish immigrants came to America, they brought with them the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween.

Lighting Candles and Bonfires

I would have thought that bonfires were too originally lit to scare the should away, but it's actually exact opposite. Bonfires were used to light the way for souls seeking the afterlife. These days, lighting candles have generally replaced the large traditional blazes.


Bonfires attract bugs which meant they were a veritable banquet for bats. So the tradition of bats and Halloween likely comes from bats actually hanging out at many of the Samhain events.

Neat stuff, right? Wonder what new traditions we're adding today that people will talk about in generations to come.

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