Halloween is a holiday with ancient origins that has been gradually Americanized. Historians trace its roots back more than 2,000 years to Samhain, the first day of the Celtic New Year, observed around November 1. Samhain (“summer’s end”) was both a harvest festival and time when souls of the dead were believed to travel the earth.
In the ninth century, after Christianity spread to the British Isles, Pope Gregory IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor all the saints of the Church. All Saints’ Day was also known as All Hallows’ (hallow means holy one or saint). The evening before was called All Hallows’ Eve – over time shortened to Halloween. As often happened, pagan customs mixed with Christian traditions, and Halloween remained a time associated with ghosts and wandering spirits.
Halloween celebrations weren’t widespread in the United States until the great waves of Irish immigrants caused by the potato famine of the 1840s. The Catholic Irish brought both their observance of All Saints’ Day and remnants of the older Celtic traditions. Their festivities gradually mixed with other Americans’ harvest customs to become Halloween as we know it.
The American tradition of trick-or-treating echoes the ancient Celtic tradition of leaving food on doorsteps for the souls of the dead. In Britain, people went “souling” on All Hallows’ Eve, walking from house to house asking for “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the dead.
In the Old World, people carved turnips and gourds into lanterns to scare away evil spirits. In America, they used pumpkins instead. Irish legend says a fellow named Jack was barred from hell for being too tricky, and had to walk the earth carrying a lantern lit with an ember the devil gave him. His name was Jack of the Lantern – or, as we say today, Jack-o’-Lantern.