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Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?

13 Oct 2019

*This article was updated on 22/08/2022*


Each year Halloween seems to increase in popularity, but have you ever stopped to think about why we celebrate it and why we participate in "apple bobbing", "trick or treating", pumpkin carving or even why we dress up?

Here's everything you need to know about Halloween...



It is thought the celebration of Halloween derives from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which runs from the evening of the 31st of October through to the evening of the 1st of November.

Samhain symbolised the end of summer and the harvest and marked the beginning of winter which was often associated with death.

The Celts believed that between these dates the boundaries between the human world and the realm of the dead became blurred and ghosts would return to walk the earth for a single night

The Celts believed these spirits would be mischievous and cause trouble or damage their crops.

As part of their festival, they would dress up in animal pelts, carve turnips with scary faces and attempt to tell each other's fortunes.


Halloween starts to take shape

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st to be All Saints Day (also known as All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas - derived from the Middle English word "Alholowmesse" which means All Saints Day)

Therefore the "eve" of All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas became All-Hallows Eve or Halloween.

The church dedicated November 2nd to be All Souls Day in 1000 A.D. - a day to honour the dead.

This was seen as an attempt by the churches to replace Celtic traditions with their Christian ones.


Trick or Treat Origins

During the traditional All Soul's Day parade in England, the poor would beg for food.

Wealthy families would often give them "soul cakes" (a type of pastry) if they promised to pray for the family's dead relatives.

The church liked this idea and encouraged it, as this would replace the Celtic tradition of leaving food and wine out for spirits.

This new tradition became known as "going a-souling" and developed into children visiting houses in their neighbourhood and asking for food.


Carving Pumpkins Origins

Going back to the Celtic celebrations, when they had their Samhain bonfires, they believed that evil spirits lurked in the shadows cast by the flames and wanted to drive these away. 

To do this they carved turnips with scary faces and placed candles inside.

The aim was to create a pathway between the turnip flame and the Samhain bonfire.

The light shining through the turnip's face was said to scare the evil spirits away and invite good spirits and travellers into their homes.

It is thought that when people from England travelled (emigrated) to America this tradition went with them.

However, they found carving Pumpkins was much easier than carving turnips and the tradition of carving pumpkins took hold.


Halloween costumes and dressing up origins

It is thought this has both Celtic and European origins. Since it was believed that spirits would return on the 31st of October and walk amongst the living, many people were afraid to leave their homes for fear of bumping into ghosts once the sun went down.

To avoid being recognised by these spirits, people would wear masks if they went out in the dark which would confuse the spirits into thinking that these people dressed up were fellow ghosts.



Why do we bob for apples?

The origins of this tradition could date back to the Roman Invasion of England, which by 43 A.D controlled most of the Celtic territories. 

The Roman celebrated the Roman Goddess Pomona - Goddess of fruit and trees, and it is thought that they combined the celebrations of Samhain with their own two celebrations - Feralia, which commemorated the dead and one which celebrated the Goddess Pomona whose symbol was the apple.

Hundreds of years later it is thought to have emerged as a courting ritual in England.

An apple would be assigned to a potential partner and the "bobber" would then attempt to take a bite out of the apple.

  • Successful attempt on bite 1 would mean they were destined for a successful romance
  • Successful on attempt 2 would mean they would have a relationship but this would fade over time
  • Success on attempt 3 would mean the relationship was doomed

Other apple bobbing games included one where the first person to successfully bite an apple would be the first person to be married - this would be popular amongst a group of friends to see which one would get married first

It declined in popularity and by the 1800s would only have been common in a handful of areas

It is thought that Americans who were looking into their immigrant roots came across this tradition, and keen to bring back Celtic "fall" traditions reintroduced this to Halloween parties for both adults and children


Who celebrates Halloween?

Halloween is predominantly celebrated in western cultures like the UK, US and Canada.

Other countries do have similar celebrations such as Day of The Dead in Mexico, Day of Dracula in Romania and Pangangaluluwa in the Philippines.