Discover the Haunted History of Halloween with World Book Online!

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Ancient Origins

  • Halloween developed from an ancient pagan festival celebrated by Celtic people over 2,000 years ago in the area that is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northwestern France.
  • The festival was called Samhain (pronounced SOW ehn), which means summer’s end. The festival marked the beginning of the dark winter season and was celebrated around November 1.
  • During Samhain, Celts believed that the barriers between the natural world and the supernatural were broken, and that the dead could walk among the living for just a little while.

From Samhain To Halloween

  • In the 800’s, the Christian church established a new holiday, All Saints’ Day, on November 1st. All Saints’ Day was also called All Hallows’. Hallow means saint, or one who is holy. The evening before All Hallows’ was known as All Hallows’ Eve, or as it came to be abbreviated, All Hallow e’en.
  • For centuries in Europe, people remembered the dead at All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 2) with bonfires.

Origins of the Jack-o’-Lantern

  • Although bonfires are less common on Halloween today, people still mark the night with candles burning in jack-o’-lanterns.
  • The jack-o’-lantern originally represented spirits present in the dark, or souls released from Christian purgatory.
  • According to an Irish legend, jack-o’-lanterns were named for a character named Jack, who could not enter heaven because he was a miserly, bad-tempered man. He could not get into hell either, because he had tricked the devil several times. As a result, Jack had to walk the earth forever with only a coal from hell to light his lantern.

American Traditions

By the late 1800’s, Americans celebrated this spooky holiday in a variety of ways:

  • In rural New Hampshire, people held barn dances for Halloween.
  • In New York City, Halloween parades and firecrackers were common aspects of the celebration.
  • In mountainous North Carolina, many thought Halloween was a time when people could hear the future whispered in the wind.
  • In Louisiana, it was tradition to cook a midnight dumb supper (which means a meal eaten without speaking) and watch for a ghost to join the table.

Halloween In Europe

  • In Ireland, objects, such as a coin, a ring, and a thimble, were baked into a cake or other food. It was believed that the person who found the coin would become wealthy. Whoever found the ring would marry soon, but the person who got the thimble would never get married.
  • In England, people went house-to-house souling—that is, asking for small breads called soul cakes in exchange for prayers.
  • In some areas of the United Kingdom and Ireland, people went mumming (parading in masks) on many holidays, including Halloween.

Warding Off the Spirits

People in Scotland and Ireland once carved out large beets or turnips to use as lanterns on Halloween. After this custom reached America, people began to use pumpkins.

Pumpkins: A New World Vegetable

Pumpkins probably originated in North America. Seeds from related plants dating back to 7000 to 5500 B.C. have been found in Mexico. Most pumpkins weigh between 5 to 30 pounds (2.3 to 14 kilograms). But some may weigh more than 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms)!

These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online, your answer for fast, reliable information.

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