Probing Question: What are the origins of Halloween?

"Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!" Each year on October 31st, children dressed in fanciful costumes go door-to-door demanding candy from their neighbors. Meanwhile, older folks tour haunted houses staged with phony bats, spiders, and goblins, and party until dawn.

Halloween is a much-loved tradition in the United States—and big business, to the tune of $5-7 billion annually. Yet most of us know little about the origins of this celebration of spookiness.

pumpkin carvings at night
Flickr user indigoprime

The Halloweeen tradition of carving jack-o'-lanterns is connected to the Celtic folktale "Stingy Jack."

According to Benjamin Hudson, professor of history and medieval studies at Penn State, Halloween, though nominally tied to the Christian holiday of All Saints' Day (November 1), has its roots in secular Celtic celebrations. As an agricultural society, the Celts marked the passage from summer to winter on the last night of October, which they referred to as Samain's eve. (Samain was their name for the winter season.)

"During Samain's eve, the Celts believed, spirits were able to pass through the boundary between the dead and the living," Hudson says. "Thus, chaos reigned. Witches were thought to be more powerful; elves and fairies, unusually active; and divination of the future could be known through omens." In imitation of this supernatural chaos, he says, "the Celts played pranks on each other, such as upturning wagons or blocking chimneys."

The Celts welcomed the spirits of their ancestors into their homes, Hudson notes, but they took precautions against visits by harmful spirits. "In Wales, people left special food outside the house to distract harmful ghosts. And in Scotland, young men impersonated the dead by blackening their faces and wearing masks as a way of disguising themselves as ghosts and thus avoiding harm."

It's easy to see how the misbehavior associated with Samain's eve may have led to the "trick" in today's trick-or-treating tradition, and how leaving food outside for ghosts could be the origin of today's "treats." Likewise, the notion of dressing in costume could come from the Celtic custom of face painting and mask wearing to scare away dangerous spirits.

But where do our other Halloween traditions, such as decorating our doorsteps with pumpkins, spiders, and bats, come into play?

Doug Wentzel, a program director and naturalist at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center, says he often interprets the Celtic version of the folktale of "Stingy Jack" and its connection to jack-o'-lanterns as part the Children's Halloween Trail program at Shaver's Creek. The story, he says, is based on a lazy farmer named Jack who plays a trick on the Devil and, therefore, is condemned to endlessly wander the Earth with an ember inside a hollowed-out turnip to light his way. The jack o'lantern—also called a will-o'-wisp or corpse candle—was typically carved from a turnip in Ireland and England, he notes. The pumpkin, abundant in the New World, is a more recent tradition.

Although Wentzel says he enjoys entertaining audiences with this story, he prefers to focus on explaining the connection of the holiday to the natural world. "People likely associate spiders, bats, and other 'scary' animals with Halloween because they are afraid of them," he says. "As part of our Children's Halloween Trail program, we acknowledge the association between the animals and the holiday, and then we try to teach people that bats and spiders are fascinating creatures that deserve our respect."

After all, the natural world is a treat all year round.

Benjamin Hudson, Ph.D., is professor of History and Medieval Studies in the College of the Liberal Arts. He can be reached at bth1@psu.edu.

Doug Wentzel is an instructor and program director/staff naturalist at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center. He can be reached at djw105@psu.edu

This year's Children's Halloween Trail at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center will take place on October 23rd and 24th. For more information, go to: http://www.outreach.psu.edu/shaverscreek/index-childrens-halloween-trail.html.

Last Updated October 19, 2010