Halloween Traditions

Happy Halloween

Year after year, we celebrate Halloween with costume parties, trick-or-treating and spooky decorations around the house, but did you ever wonder where all this comes from and how Halloween started in the first place?

How it all started

It is believed that the origins of Halloween can be found in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, which honored the dead. The Celts lived approximately 2,000 years ago in the areas now known as Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France.

Samhain was their largest and most significant holiday of the year and was also commonly called “All Hollows’ Eve”. More exactly, the name refers to the night before “All Hallows’ Day” (“All Saints’ Day”) as in old English “hallow” means “to sanctify/saint”. With usage, “All Hallows’ Eve” ended up being pronounced “Halloween”.

It was believed that at the time of Samhain the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living. To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.



Halloween pumpkin


One of the most common Halloween customs is for children (and even grownups) to go door to door dressed in scary outfits and to receive treats in the form of candies, apples or other sweets. Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval Christian practice of ‘souling’, when poor folk would go door to door on All Hallows’ Day (All Saints’ Day – November 1st), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).



During the celebration of Samhain, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins. This is where the tradition of dressing up on Halloween night started. With years passing, people started wearing all kinds of costumes, not only scary ones. Dressing up as iconic celebrities or as fictional cinema and literature characters was added to the old repertoire of zombies and ghosts costumes. Halloween themed costume parties take place in most night clubs around the world at the end of October.



Another well known Halloween tradition consists of decorating your house or garden with carved pumpkins illuminated by candles placed inside. According to legend, these “Jack-o’-lanterns” originate from an Irishman called Jack. He had tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree and then he cut a cross symbol in the tree trunk, trapping the Devil in the branches. When Jack died, he was unable to gain access to Heaven because of his meanness. The Devil, as revenge, would not allow him into Hell. So he was forced to walk the earth endlessly. The Devil took pity on him and gave him a piece of coal to light his path. Jack put it inside a hollowed-out turnip that he had been eating and became to be known as “Jack of the lantern” or simply “Jack-o’-lantern”.

American immigrants from Irelands and England brought the tradition of carving turnips or potatoes with them, but soon discovered that American pumpkins make a better fruits to be carved into lanterns. Ever since then, people celebrating Halloween carve scary faces into pumpkins and place them at the window or near doors to frighten away Jack, who is still said to be wandering about.


Bobbing for apples

Apple bobbing or bobbing for apples is a traditional Halloween game where players (mostly children) try to catch with their teeth apples floating in a basin filled with water. In Ireland, the game is also called “snap apple” and in Northern England it is known as “apple ducking” or “duck-apple”.

This tradition dates back to the Roman invasion of Britain, when the conquering army merged their celebrations with the traditional Celtic Halloween festival. In the Roman version of the game, young unmarried people try to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string and the first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to be allowed to marry. In the Roman culture, the apple is a representation of Pomona, the goddess of fruits trees and fertility.


Halloween around the world

Kites Guatemala

Many countries from around the world adopted and adapted the Halloween celebrations and traditions. Some of them already had similar celebrations of the dead as part of their own culture. These are most often related to All Saints’ Day (commemorating the saints and martyrs – November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (commemorating the dead – November 2nd).



On November 1st, Spain celebrates Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day), a holiday of remembrance and honor of deceased relatives. On this occasion, families gather in the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves with flowers. According to flower shops, this is the day of the year when most flowers are sold. As the cemeteries are filled with color from all  kinds of flower arrangements, the living also engage in other popular activities such as eating traditional sweets (huesos de santo – meaning “saint bones”, buñuelos de viento etc.) or eating castañas (chestnuts) around a bonfire.



Mexicans and people from other Latin American countries celebrate Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos on November 2nd, at the same time as other countries celebrate All Souls’ Day, in remembrance of the dead. The difference is that Mexicans only honor adult deceased people this day and dedicate a special, separate day to dead children. They are commemorated on November 1st, on Día de los Inocentes or Día de los Angelitos.

Besides building altars called ofrendas in their home, Mexicans use to gather in the plaza or garden of the town and dance in colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped or devil masks. Door to door visitors offering veladoras (small wax candles) to show respect for the deceased are given tamales and atole, local treats.



Probably one of the most unique ways of remembering the dead is through the kite festival organized in Guatemala on November 1st. During this celebration, huge brightly colored kites fill the sky. Locals say that the kites provide a means of communication with the dead. The deceased recognize their family members by the colors used on the kite and communicate with them through the thread. The kites are made from rice paper and bamboo and have even 20 meters in diameter.



In the Philippines, the period from October 31st to November 2nd is a time for remembering the ones that passed away. Filipinos pursue the tradition of Pangangaluluwâ, very similar to trick-or-treating. Groups of people go to houses and sing carols about the souls in Purgatory in exchange for money or food. One of the most popular treats to be offered are rice cakes called suman.



Chinese commemorate the deceased mid-July, not late October or at the beginning of November. Nevertheless, their “Hungry Ghost Festival” has similar symbolism as Halloween. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, it is believed that the spirits of the dead come back to visit their families. Chinese customs on this occasion include floating lanterns on the river to remember those who have died.

Halloween’s history is certainly an interesting one and it only makes us appreciate this holiday more. Happy Halloween everyone! Make sure you buy enough candy.


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