What Is Halloween and How Is It Celebrated?

You think you know what Halloween is all about, but you might not—not really. After all, it wasn't always about candy and pumpkins.

What is Halloween? It’s a simple question that you’ve been able to answer since you were old enough to go trick-or-treating…or is it? Most people don’t know the true origins of this now-commercialized holiday. As it exists today in the United States, Halloween is a day when we can all indulge in the darker, creepier side of life and loads of candy. It’s a lot of fun, a little spooky, and anything but serious. But historically, the holiday was religious in nature and extremely significant to the culture of the people who celebrated it. Before you deck your halls with ghosts, goblins, and assorted ghoulish decorations this year, find out how America’s favorite holiday got started.

The Celtic tradition

Halloween can be traced back to an ancient Celtic holiday called Samhain, celebrated in what is now Ireland, Scotland, and England, as well as parts of Northern Europe. Starting around 2,000 years ago, the three-day pagan religious festival began around Oct. 31 to honor the harvest and prepare for the “the dark half of the year,” according to History.com. The ancient Celts believed that on this day, the line between the living and the spiritual realm was blurred—meaning that ghosts from beyond could visit the living and monsters could find their way into people’s houses.

Those celebrating aimed to ward off as much evil as possible. They held special rites to keep monsters, witches, and evil fairies at bay. They told tales about mythological heroes and the underworld. And they tried to protect themselves against evil. How? By dressing up as monsters so they wouldn’t be kidnapped or consumed by actual monsters. Speaking of terrifying tales, don’t miss the spookiest urban legends from each of the 50 states.

How the rituals evolved

Celtic priests (also known as Druids) started the holiday with a bonfire to welcome the spirits back to the world of the living. During this ritual, they burned crops and animals as sacrifices to the gods. They also focused on the temporary return of their loved ones. In fact, children would play games with the dead at their homes, and adults would hold conversations with them. These 24 Halloween yard decorations reflect how people are celebrating Halloween today.

But it was the dark side of the holiday that inspired many of the Halloween traditions we embrace today, according to Smithsonian.com, as people tried to protect themselves against evil spirits “in search of mischief.” For example, in addition to dressing up to disguise themselves to fool these spirits, people carried treats as bribes in case they were confronted by them. And they carried jack-o’-lanterns made out of turnips not only to light up darkness but also as another way to scare off these unsavory spirits. (It was much later that Irish immigrants swapped out the turnips for the now-ubiquitous pumpkins.) Check out these 14 spooky Halloween superstitions and how they came to haunt us.

How Christianity changed everything (sort of)

It’s no coincidence that a few Catholic holidays fall right around Halloween. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the feast of All Martyrs’ Day from May 13 to November 1 and turned it into All Saints’ Day. Then, in 1000 A.D., the Catholic Church added All Souls’ Day (which focuses on praying for the dead) on Nov. 2. Why? To help further the transition from paganism to Catholicism. And it worked. All Souls’ Day embraced many of Samhain’s celebrations, including bonfires, parades, and costumes—though now people mainly dressed up as saints, angels, and devils. October 31 was subsequently called All Hallows’ Eve…and then Halloween.

Picture of a spider pumpkin at the front door,made for Halloween.Muriel Lasure/Shutterstock

When Halloween arrived in the United States

Halloween was a tough sell in early colonial America because of the new population’s strict religious beliefs, but it was more commonly celebrated in Maryland and the South. And as the Europeans mingled with the Native Americans, traditions evolved even further. Halloween festivities meshed with autumn festivals and featured celebratory public events, singing and dancing, ghost stories, and pranks. But it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that Halloween really became popular in the United States. Why? Irish immigrants escaping the Potato Famine brought their ideas and traditions about Halloween along with them. These days all you need is a roll of duct tape to come with an awesome Halloween costume.

How Halloween became the frightfully fun holiday we know and love today

In this new whimsical context, Americans adopted the Celtic tradition of dressing up and transformed it into what we now know as trick-or-treating. By the 1930s, Halloween became almost completely secularized, while All Saints’ Day became more of a religious holiday. To this day, some devout people are strictly against celebrating the holiday as anything other than a religious day.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Halloween became increasingly about commercialism and profits. In fact, Americans were expected to spend $9 billion on Halloween in 2018, according to the National Retail Federation, a number that continues to increase each year. So how is Halloween celebrated these days? You can probably answer that question yourself: with costumes, parties, toys, and candy showing up in stores earlier and earlier every year. If you can’t get enough of Halloween, you need to take some time to create these monstrously creative Halloween decorations.

What Halloween looks like in other countries

It’s safe to say that Americans are Halloween-obsessed, but not everyone around the world is. How is Halloween celebrated elsewhere? In Canada and Ireland, the celebrations are similar, but in England, Halloween is generally not celebrated at all. According to History.com, that was a result of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, the U.K. celebrates a completely unrelated holiday around this time (on November 5th, to be precise). Guy Fawkes Day, which revolves around the execution of an infamous traitor, features bonfires, burning effigies, and fireworks.

In Mexico, people celebrate Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. While it takes place right after Halloween, it is very different in tone and intent, says National Geographic. Yes, people do dress up as colorful skeletons and celebrate in the streets, but the point is to honor the dead and welcome their spirits back to Earth during this time, not to be fearful of them. To celebrate, people also adorn the graves of their ancestors with decorations and offer food to let them know that they haven’t forgotten them. Here are some other ways Halloween is celebrated around the world.

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Taylor Markarian
I have a B.A. in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College. I write for several lifestyle and entertainment publications, such as Alternative Press, Revolver, Your Tango, and The List. I'm a sucker for dogs and a hardcore kid for life. Let's start talking.