It’s here! Whether you love Halloween, or would prefer skipping straight to the Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas presents, you have to admit: Halloween is a fascinating holiday. It’s a day where toddlers, children, teenagers, and even adults dress up as their favorite characters and caricatures, decorate their homes, and throw big, spooky parties.
So where did these customs begin? Some traditions, like bobbing for apples, go all the way back to Roman times. Others popped up in the last century with the commercialization of candy and similar sugary sweets.
Here are 8 popular Halloween traditions and where they got their starts:
1. Eating Candy
Before the 20th century, kids who trick-or-treated would indeed receive treats — just not the candy kind. It was common to hand out nuts, toys, and fruit instead. It wasn’t until the 1950s that candy companies began marketing individually-wrapped candies for trick-or-treating. However, it didn’t fully catch on until the ‘70s, when parents no longer wanted their kids to eat anything unwrapped.
2. Wearing costumes
The tradition of wearing costumes on Halloween actually started with a Celtic festival called Samhain. Samhain, also on October 31, celebrates the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. The Celtic people believed that the onset of winter, or “shadow season,” made it easier for spirits to walk the Earth, and living people to interact with them. Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the Christian All Souls’ Day also support the idea that the spirit world converges with the living world around this time. Many people were terrified at the thought of spirits, and decided that they would dress up like the ghosts themselves to blend in and stay safe. Now, it’s become a fun tradition for kids and adults alike.
3. Black and Orange Decorations
Black and orange are classic Halloween colors that can be seen in pumpkins, autumn leaves, candy corn, black cats, bats, and more. Most people associate the month of October with these colors — particularly orange. This can also be traced back to Samhain. The color orange symbolized the autumn harvest season, and the color black represented the “death” of the crops and the start of shadow season.
There’s no clear-cut origin for the tradition of trick-or-treating — but there are three popular theories.
The first begins with – big surprise – the Celtic people. During Samhain, they would leave food on their doorsteps to appease the spirits. When people began dressing up in costumes, it evolved into the trick-or-treating we know today.
Another has roots in Scotland. The Scots celebrated All Souls’ Day, as well as the practice of “souling.” Soulers were usually poor people and children; they went from home to home, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money. From souling, the practice of guising was born – which is basically the prankster version. Guisers traveled to people’s doorsteps and, instead of offering prayers, they told jokes, sang songs, or performed other tricks.
Finally, there’s the theory that trick-or-treating sprung from German-American holiday traditions. They called it “belsnickling.” The children would don costumes and have the adults guess who they were dressed as; if no one guessed correctly, they would be rewarded with treats.
5. Candy Apples and Bobbing for Apples
Apples are a fruit associated with falltime and Halloween, and that started with the Romans. Around this time they would host a festival for Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. The festival included bobbing for apples, which was actually a courting ritual for young men and women. Since then, apples have been a part of Halloween festivals and traditions everywhere, and people began coating apples in sugar and syrup in the 1950s.
Ireland was the first country to start carving what we know today as Jack-O’-Lanterns. They originally used turnips, and carved scary faces into them to ward off spirits. The story goes that a man named Stingy Jack captured the devil, and would only let him go with the promise that he wouldn’t go to Hell. After he died, he wasn’t accepted into Heaven, either, and was forced to wander Earth as a ghost. The devil gave him a carved out turnip with hot coal in it to light his way, and that’s where the tradition started.
7. Corn Mazes
This fun activity draws its inspiration from Greek mythology, with Theseus and the Minotaur. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Theseus was placed in a giant labyrinth with a dangerous half-man, half-bull monster called the Minotaur. He used a ball of thread to ultimately guide him to safety.
The concept of a twisting and turning labyrinth was eventually translated into the maze in England. In 1690 the Hampton Court Maze was created — the oldest living hedge maze in history. From there, we Americans thought up the corn maze. Or… maize. The first-ever corn maze “cropped up” in eastern Pennsylvania in 1993.
As Halloween falls at the end of the harvest, corn mazes became popular at this time of the year. Unlike traditional hedge mazes, they usually incorporate fun puzzles, scares, and spooky decorations.
8. Horror Movies
Most people these days aren’t scared of spirits on their doorstep, so naturally, they had to invent something new to be scared of.
Horror movie binge-athons are an integral part of spooky season. And horror movie history doesn’t go back that far. The first was an 1896 short by Georges Melies — The House of the Devil. It featured bats, witches, ghosts, and a crucifix, all popular horror symbols. When the silent film era began, filmmakers drew inspiration from classics by Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, and primarily relied on “monster stories.” This grew popular after sound was developed with both Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931.
Horror didn’t really start to evolve until the ‘50s and ‘60s, with Hitchcock and Hitchcock-esque movies that showed violence in a way Hollywood never had before. Then in the ‘70s, the release of The Exorcist and The Omen revolutionized horror with a new concept: The supernatural.
In the decades since, technological advancements have only made horror movies more realistic, in turn making them much scarier! All the spooky things that are said to come out on Halloween — ghosts, demons, mythical creatures and the like — are reflected in these films. And if you’re not a horror fan, there are still plenty of tame Halloween movies for you to watch instead like Hocus Pocus, Halloween Town, Nightmare Before Christmas, to name a few.
If you’re celebrating one or all of these Halloween traditions today, now you know a bit about who started them, and why. Stay safe tonight, and have a happy/spooky Halloween!
For more, read about the Jewish Ghost Army that fooled Nazi soldiers with costumes and cardboard props.