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Where Did Halloween Come From? How Did It Originate?

Haunted houses, caramel apples, jack-o'-lanterns and, of course, dressing up in costume help make Halloween what it is today. Here's a bit about how it all came about!

By A Little Birdie | Posted on October 31, 2017 in Holidays


Jack-o'-lanterns: an unmistakable sign of Halloween.

Jack-o'-lanterns: an unmistakable sign of Halloween.
© jon2330 - Bigstock

We don’t usually think of Halloween as a gift giving holiday but, in a way, it is. Neighbors, friends and family give sweets and candies to the wee ones in our midst, making it possibly one of the most neighborhood-friendly holidays in the calendar year. So, before costumes are donned, apples bobbed, caramel apples are dipped, and far too much candy corn is consumed (already guilty!), we thought we’d take a quick look at the origins and evolution of this spooky, magical, day of costumed festivities.

Kicking off our research at the local library, we were interested to learn that, although the etymology of Halloween is Christian in origin (coming from All Hallows’ Eve - or, All Hallows’ Even), the holiday itself is believed to have its roots in pagan celebrations, possibly as far back as the Roman feast of Pomona, or their festival of the dead, Parentalia. More likely though, according to Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Halloween’s roots are to be found in the Celtic festival of Samhain. Samhain means “summer’s end” and was apparently believed to not only be a marker of seasonal transition, but a time of “supernatural intensity.”

Today, the verb “hallowed,” the past participle of “hallow,” means “sacred,” “holy,” and/or, “respected.” In times past, however, “hallow” was also used as a noun and was another word for a saint or holy person. It’s in this context that the name All Hallows’ Day could be used interchangeably with All Saints’ Day.

Originally celebrated on May 13 in the 4th century, by the 8th century, All Saints’ Day was celebrated on November 1 in England and in Germany. Ireland shifted to an April 20 celebration, but would eventually move to November 1 as well. It is presumably thanks to this scheduling shift that the holiday became conflated with Samhain which was celebrated around October 31, or All Hallows’ Eve. The contracted form of the name, the one that we’re more familiar with - “Hallow’een” or “Halloween” - came into use by the 18th century.

Well before Halloween made its way to our shores and, depending on one’s village, town or city, the holiday might have involved a celebratory harvest meal, costumes, games, pranks and, interestingly, courtship rites. Halloween is believed to have jumped across the Atlantic largely thanks to the wave of Irish immigration that occurred in the late 19th century ( 🇮🇪 🎃 💪 ). In North America, it lost the sectarian connotations it had had in the Old World, distinguishing Catholics from Protestants, and the European traditions gradually evolved to become the holiday we know today, complete with block parties, trick-or-treating, haunted houses, candy, and jack-o’-lanterns.

Trick-or-treating may have its roots in several European traditions, among them “souling” and “guising.” As far as we were able to glean, the former involved knocking on someone’s door and offering prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money. Guising, was similar, although the door-knocker was likely dressed in costume and offered a joke, a song, or a story instead of prayers. Again, it seems to have been very region- and time-specific as to how the traditions were expressed and who actually participated - be it children, young men, or needy members of the community.

Our current incarnation of trick-or-treating here in the United States and in Canada is believed to have evolved in the 1910s-1920s, gaining coast-to-coast traction by the late 1940s, and rising greatly in popularity in the 1950s. We have read in a couple of places that trick-or-treating may have already have been practiced by the late 1920s, just up the road, in Wellesley, MA, but no sources were referenced to back-up this claim. Surer evidence exists in the October, 1920 issue of Ladies Home Journal which contains the following:

“It is Halloween. A group of hilarious youngsters in costume, including two Charlie Chaplins, a Topsy, a Gingerbread Man and an Indian, noisily approach the front door of a large house, ring the bell and when the owner herself comes to the door, greets her in chorus with:

‘Nuts! Nuts! We want nuts!
Nuts! Nuts! We want nuts!’”

You’ll note that candy and the term “trick or treat” are apparently not yet part of the ritual, but that would soon change. The November 4, 1927 edition of the Canadian newspaper, the Lethbridge Herald, is believed to contain the first, in-print use of the phrase “trick or treat”, indicating that it was at least in use from that point on.

November 4, 1927: Possibly the first-ever use of the term

November 4, 1927: Possibly the first-ever use of the term “trick or treat” in print.
© Lethbridge Herald (reprinted with permission)

Although celebrations across North America are quite similar to each other these days - certainly more so than they were 100 years ago - there are still some marvelous regional differences in how Halloween is observed. We recently learned, for example, that in St. Louis, instead of saying “trick or treat,” costumed children must tell a joke in order to receive their candy. NPR did a little investigative research into this tradition back in 2011 and discovered it actually has its origins in Des Moines, “where it began as a Depression-era attempt to curb hooliganism, which included upending trash cans, turning on fire hydrants and shooting out streetlights.” Side note: to get an idea of the kind of jokes the children tell (and, perhaps for a bit of a giggle!), check out the Riverfront Times (RFT) piece linked in the NPR article. The RFT apparently has a tradition of doing an annual joke round-up. One that made us chuckle because it was so holiday specific was:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Phillip who?
Phillip my bag with candy.

We didn’t grow up in the joke tradition here in Boston, but we think it sounds like a fantastic idea - so, if you happen to show up at our door tonight with either a joke or a “trick or treat,” we’ll be at-the-ready with our bowl of sweets and treats. Happy Halloween, all!


In addition to the websites directly linked in this post, we also consulted the following:


Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. 1990. Reprint, Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Lethbridge Herald. “‘Trick of Treat’ is Demand,” November 4, 1927: 5.


Telford, Mae McGuire. “What Shall We Do Halloween?” Ladies Home Journal, October 1927: 135.

Tags: gifting traditions, Halloween, history

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