Whether it’s trick-or-treating, decorating sugar cookies or watching scary movies, almost everyone has a favorite Halloween tradition or two. It’s a holiday that is celebrated around the world, albeit with some pretty major differences.
Despite how popular Halloween is, though, there’s still a lot about it that is taken for granted. Why carve pumpkins? Why the last day of October? Why go trick-or-treating?
There’s a lot more to the holiday than just spooky costumes and overdosing on sugar. Here’s a look at some little-known facts about Halloween and its history, based on a variety of sources from around the web:
If you thought St. Patrick’s was the biggest internationally celebrated Irish holiday, think again. That title actually belongs to Halloween, which traces its roots back to the several-thousand-year-old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sau-win”), which makes Halloween one of the oldest holidays, as well.
The ancient Celts of Ireland celebrated Samhain, which means “summer’s end” in Old Irish from sunset on Oct. 31 to sunset on the following day.
It was believed that on this one night, the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the spirits became porous, allowing supernatural beings, including ghosts and fairies, to freely roam the earth.
In order to placate them, food offerings were left outside homes, and places were set at dinner tables in case a recently deceased family member decided to visit.
The name Halloween
As most people know, Halloween, or Hallowe’en, is a contraction of the phrase “All Hallows’ Eve.” What isn’t as widely known, however, is why the holiday is called that and not Samhain.
The answer has to do with Christian missionary work.
All Hallows’ Eve marks the first night of Hallowmas, a three-day celebration instituted during the 8th century by Pope Gregory III as a stand-in for pagan harvest festivals like Samhain. Rather than force new converts to quit their traditions cold turkey, Gregory believed it would be more effective to apply Christianity to them.
All Hallows’ Eve retained Samhain’s focus on the spirits of the dead. A common practice was to hold a candlelight vigil at a cemetery. However, people were primarily encouraged to spend the night praying and fasting in preparation for the next two days, All Saints’ Day/All Hallows’ Day on Nov. 1 (dedicated to Christian martyrs and saints) and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2 (dedicated to all other Christian dead).
Bobbing for apples
One of the other main influences on Halloween was the Roman harvest festival of Pomona, which entered the British Isles in the 1st century B.C.
Bobbing for apples is a remnant of that holiday. The Romans believed that whoever pulled out the first apple with just their teeth would be the first to get married.
Apples were also used in other divination rituals. It was believed that if a person cut an apple in half at midnight on Oct. 31, the number of seeds could predict the future. The arrangement of the seeds was also thought to resemble a five-pointed star, the symbol of witches, making the fruit a perfect treat for Halloween.
Creatures of the night
Black cats, bats, owls and spiders have long been associated with Halloween for reasons that go beyond just the fact that they are all largely nocturnal.
According to folk superstition, black cats are witches’ familiars or, possibly, even a witch in disguise. Either way, seeing a black cat means that a witch might be watching you.
Druids — the Celtic priests — would light huge fires to commemorate the dying sun of winter. Into these fires, they would throw the bones of slaughtered cattle — hence the term “bonfire,” or “bone fire." The bonfires naturally attracted swarms of insects, which, in turn, attracted bats and owls to eat them.
Hearing the hoot of an owl has also long been associated with imminent death. Julius Caesar, Augustus and Agrippa were all said to have heard owls prior to dying.
Interestingly enough, though, spiders traditionally have a positive association on Halloween. On this night, spiders are believed to be the spirits of the dead watching over their loved ones.
The exact origins of trick-or-treating are a bit murky due to the fact that similar practices are associated with a number of different cultures and holidays.
Some believe it comes from the Celtic tradition of “guising” or “mumming” — dressing up as a spirit or fairy to blend in on Samhain.
Others believe it comes from the Hallowmas practice of “souling,” in which children would go door-to-door singing and asking for “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers on behalf of the dead.
The first known mention of trick-or-treating in print comes from a 1927 newspaper article from Blackie, Alberta, in Canada.
Halloween has been known by a lot of different names over the years, including All Saints’ Eve, Snap Apple Night, Beggars’ Night, Witches’ New Year, Third Harvest and, for very good reason, Mischief Night. Historically, anyway, Halloween and mischief go together like Christmas and presents.
In the 1920s and ’30s, though, Halloween pranks started getting out of hand, becoming a financial liability and leading, on a few occasions, to accidental deaths.
Kids and even groups like the Ku Klux Klan used Halloween as an excuse to engage in criminal activities, including all-out vandalism. A mild form might be a homeowner waking up Nov. 1 to find all his farming equipment carefully arranged on top of his roof. But bricks through windows and painted obscenities were also commonplace.
In response to the acts of vandalism, young kids getting fired at with buckshot was also not uncommon.
For this reason, groups, including the Boy Scouts, started organizing public Halloween events like parades and free movie screenings. The one that has stuck the most, though, is organized trick-or-treating.
Although initially looked down on by some as basically a form of extortion, when given the choice between tricks or treats, the public opted for treats.
If you wanted to be historically accurate this Halloween, you should have carved a turnip.
Like so much of Halloween, the practice of carving pumpkins on Halloween can be traced back to an Ireland, this time to a story about a man named Stingy Jack. A gifted prankster with a silver tongue, Jack managed to trick the devil himself on multiple occasions.
When Jack died, his sinful lifestyle prevented him from getting to heaven. When he tried to enter hell, though, the devil refused him entrance and gave him a burning ember to light his path through limbo.
Ever resourceful, Jack grabbed a turnip, hollowed it out, and put the ember inside it to use as a lantern — hence “Jack of the lantern.”
The pumpkin part of it, though, is all American. Irish immigrants to the New World found pumpkins to be not only more readily available, but also, much better for carving.
Along with the Irish, Halloween as we know it today owes a huge amount to Charlie Brown, of all things.
During World War II, sugar rations temporarily put an end to Halloween festivities, including trick-or-treating. After the war, it was the combined influence of a number of children’s magazines, radio programs and, notably, a 1951 “Peanuts” comic strip that revived the practice — despite repeated efforts to turn the holiday into something less macabre, including by no less than President Harry S. Truman, who submitted a proposal to make Oct. 31 “Youth Honor Day.”
The animated special "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" first aired in 1966 and has endured in popularity to this day.
Candy and politics
After Christmas, Halloween is easily the most commercial holiday of the year.
It’s an especially important time for candy companies.
According to the Huffington Post, Americans purchase 600 million pounds of candy around Halloween.
Altogether, the candy purchased in just the last few days leading up to Oct. 31 accounts for about 10 percent of the year’s total candy sales, which translates to about $2 billion in revenue.
It’s no surprise, then, that candy companies fought tooth and nail for 25 years to make Halloween's daylight hours last just a little bit longer, according to Michael Downing, author of "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time." In 2007, Congress finally passed a bill called the Energy Policy Act. Part of it involved pushing daylight savings back one week from the end of October to the beginning of November — despite the fact that many studies showed that the change would have no effect or, possibly, even a detrimental effect on energy consumption, according to Scientific American.
One more hour of daylight in the afternoons, though, means more time for trick-or-treating and, thus, more bags of candy per household.
Sources: "History of Halloween," History Channel; "A Brief History of Halloween in America," deliriumsrealm.com; "Halloween: A History," Lesley Bannatyne; "Halloween candy facts: 12 things you might not have known," Huffington Post; "The reason behind changing Daylight Saving," npr.org; "Does Daylight Saving Time conserve energy," Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American; "Ancient Samhain festival burns brightly at Halloween," C. Austin; "Samhain Symbols — Animals," J.A. Julian; "10 spooky facts about Halloween," listverse.com; "History of Halloween," livescience.com; "13 facts about Halloween that you can't unlearn," omgfacts.com; "13 strange facts on why we celebrate Halloween," mic.com.