What Is Halloween? Meaning and Popular Traditions

Published August 3, 2022
Horizontal close-up shot of lamp decorated with white fabric with ghost face painted on it for Halloween

The fall season brings changing leaves, cooler weather, and, of course, Halloween. It's a time of year when children wait all month long in October for the chance to dress up in costumes and go door to door hunting for candy. Many people look forward to the holiday for its tricks and treats, but what is the true meaning of Halloween?

What Is Halloween?

Halloween is a popular holiday in the United States that is celebrated by both children and adults. It occurs once every year on the 31st of October, which is the last day of the month. However, it is not a federal holiday recognized by the government, which leaves many people to believe that it is more of a celebration.

The origins of Halloween stem from the pagan festival of Samhain, which began about 2,500 years ago as a Celtic celebration that gradually picked up Christian religious roots. The Catholic church created the holiday of All Saints' Day, also called All Hallows' Day, which was to be celebrated on November 1st. This then designated October 31st as All Hallows' Eve.

Halloween didn't come to the United States until around 1845 when Irish immigrants left their country due to the potato famine. When they arrived, they brought their Catholic celebrations with them, which is what introduced Americans to Halloween. The Halloween name as we know it has gone through many changes before its current name finally stuck. The term is actually a shortened version of All Hallows' Eve.

What Happens on Halloween?

Halloween has changed a bit over the years. When the holiday first started, people would dress up in animal skins or wrap themselves up as mummies. People would carve turnips instead of pumpkins. And, they would go door to door asking for soul cakes instead of candy.

Today, Halloween looks much different. Many of the same traditions are still present, but they have taken on a new light. Celebrations have evolved to resemble the Halloween that many people know and love.

Dressing Up in Costumes

Teenage Girl Wearing Witch Costume for Halloween

Today, it might be difficult for you to go out on Halloween night and find someone dressed up in real animal skins. However, you will definitely still see people in costumes. Children and adults dress up in elaborate disguises, such as cartoon characters, dinosaurs, superheroes, classic Halloween monsters, and just about anything you can imagine.

When Halloween first began, people used to dress up in order to disguise themselves from evil spirits. People believed that these spirits and ghosts could cross over into the world of the living on Halloween night. But, they could escape their wrath if the spirits couldn't find (or recognize) them.

Today, people dress up because it's fun to be whatever you want to be for one night. And, because it's a fun way to express yourself and get creative with your costume. You can even earn yourself some bragging rights if you win a contest for best costume.

Trick-or-Treating

Trick-or-treating actually began as part of a Celtic religious tradition. Working-class families would visit the homes of rich families and ask for soul cakes. Soul cakes are small and round desserts that are a cross between a cookie and a biscuit.

Wealthy families would give them to others that promised to pray for the souls of loved ones that had passed away. Eventually, people started to leave the soul cakes outside for visitors to claim in order to prevent evil spirits from playing tricks on them.

Today, people go trick-or-treating for candy. Children and their parents walk for blocks and blocks collecting candy bars, stickers, and even caramel apples. At the end of the night, kids (try to) eat as much candy as they can without getting a stomach ache.

Bobbing for Apples

Bobbing for apples stems from a romantic British tradition used in courtship. Eligible young ladies would bob for apples that symbolized eligible bachelors that could be their potential match. Ladies would dunk their heads into a barrel of water and try to grab the apple that represented their crush. If they were successful, a courtship between the two would begin.

Today, people don't bob for apples in order to impress a romantic partner. Instead, the activity is more of a party game to celebrate the season. Friends and family line up to compete to see who can grab the most apples in a minute. Instead of using a barrel, people now use bowls.

Afterward, many people then make caramel or candy-covered apples with the fruit they grabbed from the water. Bobbing for apples is still a friendly competition. However, instead of someone's hand in marriage, the reward is bragging rights and a sweet treat.

Decorating Your House

People didn't always decorate their homes for Halloween. In fact, when Halloween first began in the United States, it was thought of as more of a holiday for adults, rather than for children. This changed when trick-or-treating took off in the '50s, which caused people to make the change towards more of a cute and spooky Halloween in the US, rather than a frightening one.

In fact, Mamie Eisenhower even decorated the White House for Halloween for the first time ever in 1958. She hosted a lunch for the families of staff members that included skeletons hanging from the walls, dried cornstalks, red apples, and lots and lots of pumpkins. After the White House accepted Halloween decorations, many more Americans picked up the tradition.

If you walk through your neighborhood now during Halloween time, you'll probably see numerous houses decorated for the season. People use orange and purple lights, lots of pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, and tombstone lawn decorations to ring in the season.

Carving Pumpkins

Family carving pumpkin for Halloween holiday together at home

Long ago, people in the United Kingdom would harvest a large number of turnips during the fall and winter seasons. Due to the surplus, people would use the vegetable to crave faces into them to ward off evil spirits during the season. Some would even hollow out the turnips and place candles inside. Their creations were called 'punkies'.

During the fall and winter months in the US, people often grow pumpkins, instead of turnips, to bulk up their food supply. This is how the tradition of carving turnips has transformed into the tradition of carving pumpkins.

Today, many people carve jack-o'-lanterns with their families and set them out on their steps with lit candles inside to create a spooky glow. Some even roast the pumpkin seeds as a snack and use the insides to make homemade pumpkin pie.

Going to a Haunted House

According to Lisa Morton's book Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, haunted houses were first created during the Great Depression. Parents decided that they needed to come up with a plan to keep their kids entertained on Halloween night to prevent from them stirring up trouble.

Many parents would decorate their basements in different Halloween themes and invite their children and their friends to travel from house to house in order to keep an eye on them. It ended up being a win-win for parents and kids as the mischief was reduced, and the kids actually enjoyed the frightening affair.

Today, thousands of people go to haunted houses during the Halloween season for a good scare. The houses and events have gotten more elaborate with haunted hay rides, spooky corn mazes, and, of course, frightening haunted houses.

Staying Away From Black Cats

Long ago, many people believed that black cats were a symbol of witchcraft, evil omens, and bad luck. Legend says that some people believed black cats to be witches in disguise, and that witches could transform themselves and shape-shift into these furry animals whenever they pleased. Many also believed that black cats were sent by demons or Satan to spy on people without being seen.

This is a superstition that many people still believe to this day. In fact, many people think that it's extremely unlucky to have a black cat cross their path on Halloween night in particular. Such an event might signal that the person has seen an evil spirit or give them bad luck for the rest of the year.

As a result of this folklore, many people have a fear of black cats and try to avoid them on Halloween night. It's also common for people to use black cats as part of their Halloween decor for this same spooky reason.

The True Meaning of Halloween

Halloween is now one of the most popular holidays in the United States. And, it's even gained popularity in different countries around the world. People are excited to dress up in elaborate costumes, come together as a community, and eat lots of candy. Maybe even they'll enjoy a scare or two. The holiday has gone through many transformations to become the Halloween that many people know and love. All of these changes make Halloween a day truly worth celebrating.

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What Is Halloween? Meaning and Popular Traditions