Halloween: The History Behind The Holiday

Obsessed with Halloween? The cobwebs and skeletons, pumpkins and fake fangs. Spooky festivities are a commercial extravaganza, but what is the real story behind the traditions of Halloween?



Traditionally, Halloween commemorates the dead and is commonly quoted as deriving from the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. Citizens lit bonfires and wore simple costumes (animal skins and faces drawn on grain sacks) to ward off evil spirits that could damage crops and cause disease during the winter months (a time when human mortality naturally increased).

However, it is also suggested that Halloween originated independently on the eve of the 3-day Christian feast, Allhallowtide, beginning on 31st October. Some followers still undertake observances including church services, fasting, vigils and lighting candles at graves. Significantly, this follows Middle Ages beliefs of Halloween marking the most transparent time of the veil between life and death.

Yet for the majority of people, this festival has lost its superstitions and evolved into a good excuse to dress up, decorate and have fun.

So just where did the many traditions of Halloween originate from? 


An abundance of festivities have cemented themselves in modern interpretations of the holiday, with trick-or-treating, costume parties, jack-o-lanterns, bonfires, divination, apple bobbing and haunted attractions being popular worldwide, adopting many celebrations from American pop culture. Look no further than the big screen for a Halloween special adding a gripping story-line to an ongoing plot.

The early days of Halloween celebrations, however, were far more serious. For religious observers, abstinence from certain foods, particularly meat, led to increased intake of apples, potato pancakes and soul cakes (pastries). The latter is particularly poignant - the poor begged for food and in return for soul cakes, they would pray for the deceased relatives of their benefactor.

Costumes derived from fear of the dark and Middle Ages superstitions. Adoption of masks eased the minds of those venturing out at night - upon meeting a ghost, it would mistake them for a fellow spirit rather than a human to be preyed upon. In today’s world, the only spirits affected by costumes are competitive ones – to be the scariest, most realistic Halloween horror possible, even including pets.


It was not all gloomy though. Halloween games developed at this time too, with divination activities viewed as serious methods of forecasting birth, marriage and death. In particular, Celtic mythology often incorporates apples as a sign of other-worldliness and forecast marriages by throwing a long strip of apple peel over your shoulder, landing in the figure of your future spouse’s first initial. 

Apple bobbing itself is believed to have been brought to our shores by the Romans, where the youth competed to be the first to bite into an apple, allowing them to be the next in line to marry. Young ladies who succeeded would place the bitten apple under their pillow and hopefully dream of their future husband.

People often met around bonfires and shared stories of the dead, incorporating singing, dancing and fortune-telling into the festivities to honour fallen ancestors. These community-inclusive events partly inspired the tradition of trick-or-tricking (guising and souling), with the gifting of simple foods seeing the introduction of sweets in the early to mid-1900s. 

What about pumpkins? The iconic carved lanterns began life as turnips due to an Irish legend about a drunkard breaking a bargain with Satan. His subsequent punishment was being barred from entering Heaven or Hell, forcing him to roam the dark Earth with only a burning coal inside a hollowed-out turnip to guide his path. Over the years, pumpkins were adopted for their aesthetics and carving vegetables has since become a creative bonanza.

We hope you have enjoyed learning a little more about the spooky season and would love you to share your Halloween traditions with the City Girl Network using #citygirlhalloween and tagging us in your posts @citygirlnetwork

Written by Charlotte Bird