Six things you didn’t know about Halloween

Halloween is increasingly popular in Australia, but how many of us know where the tradition started, and why we dress up as ghouls and ghosts? Here is a short history.


Halloween pumpkins

Carve a pumpkin – or watermelon - to get into the spirit of Halloween.

Halloween began in Ireland 2,000 years ago

Halloween started as a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-win) in ancient Ireland that took place on October 31 to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of winter or, more spookily, “the darker half of the year”. It also marked the time when the veil between the living and the dead was said to be at its thinnest, making it easier to communicate with the departed and other creatures of the night, such as demons and fairies. Around the year 837 the festival rebranded, changing its name and shifting focus to communing with saints. The new name, All Hallows Eve, was shortened to Halloween but never managed to shake the spooky overtones of the Irish original.


Dressing up has always been a Halloween thing

Halloween has a long affinity with costumes. For the ancient Celts, dressing up was a form of defence against evil spirits – it was thought to confuse demons – and also marked their gratitude to the gods for the harvest just gone. Bonfires were built with the dual purpose of warding off evil spirits and being the place where people, dressed in animal heads and skins, would burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the gods. Later, Halloween meant dressing as saints, angels and devils and going from house-to-house dancing, playing music and performing tricks.


The origins of trick or treat

Trick or treat started with the Ancient Celts who’d put food and drink outside on October 31 for the spirits as they passed by on their way to the “Great Beyond”. Then people started to dress up as spirits to score the food and drink for themselves. In medieval England trick or treat took the form of “souling”, in which people would go begging at the houses of the rich for cakes in exchange for praying for the rich people’s souls. The Scottish added the “trick” part of the equation a couple of centuries later: any households that didn’t hand over a treat could expect a trick (such as stealing the wheels off your wagon). In America in the 1950s certain states wanted the practice banned as a form of extortion.


Why the carved pumpkin?

The jack-’o’-lantern is an Irish invention and was originally carved from a turnip rather than a pumpkin. The story behind the lantern is based on an appropriately dark Irish fable about a guy named Jack’s deal with the devil whom he’d trapped up a tree and wouldn’t let down until he vowed not to take Jack’s soul. The devil agreed and so Jack thought that gave him leeway to behave badly because his bargain would keep him out of hell. Unfortunately, with all the drinking, gambling and mischief-making Jack was so fond of, he wasn’t able to get into heaven at the end of his life. The devil also refused to take him in and flung a glowing coal at him for good measure. Left with nowhere to go, Jack still wanders about the place looking for a place to rest with only the coal inside a carved turnip or pumpkin to light his way. 


The United States is Halloween-crazy

North Americans might be all in on this holiday but it almost didn’t make it across the pond because the original European settlers, the Puritans, weren’t fond of its pagan roots. But thanks to the mass migration of Irish people fleeing the potato famine, Halloween took hold and flourished, and today Americans spend over $9 billion on Halloween with the single holiday weekend accounting for a quarter of all annual sales of “candy” in the United States.


How about a costume for your pets?

One of the fastest-growing sectors of the Halloween spend every year in the United States is on costumes for pets. Last year, around 30 million people spent more than $480 million on Halloween pet costumes, the best-sellers being pumpkin, hot dog and bumblebee.