See N. Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (2002), D. J. Skal, Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (2002).
Holiday observed on October 31, the eve of All Saints' Day. Its pagan origins can be traced to the Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated in ancient England and Ireland to mark the beginning of the Celtic new year. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on Samhain eve, and witches, goblins, black cats, and ghosts were said to roam abroad. The night was also thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. The pagan observances influenced the Christian festival of All Hallows' Eve, celebrated on the same date. The holiday was gradually secularized and was introduced into the U.S. by the late 19th century. Still associated with evil spirits and the supernatural, it is celebrated by children in costume who gather candy by ringing doorbells and calling out “trick or treat,” “trick” referring to the pranks and vandalism that are also part of the Halloween tradition.
Learn more about Halloween with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The imagery surrounding Halloween is largely an amalgamation of the Halloween season itself, nearly a century of work from American filmmakers and graphic artists, and a rather commercialized take on the dark and mysterious. Halloween imagery tends to involve death, magic, or mythical monsters. Traditional characters include ghosts, ghouls, witches, owls, crows, vultures, pumpkin-men, black cats, spiders, goblins, zombies, mummies, skeletons, and demons.
Particularly in America, symbolism is inspired by classic horror films, which contain fictional figures like Frankenstein's monster and The Mummy. Elements of the autumn season, such as pumpkins and scarecrows, are also prevalent. Homes are often decorated with these types of symbols around Halloween.
Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In Puicíní (pronounced "poocheeny"), a game played in Ireland, a blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled and the seated person then chooses one by touch. The contents of the saucer determine the person's life during the following year. A saucer containing earth means someone known to the player will die during the next year, a saucer containing water foretells emigration, a ring foretells marriage, a set of Rosary beads indicates that the person will take Holy Orders (becoming a nun or a priest). A coin means new wealth, a bean means poverty, and so on. In 19th century Ireland, young women placed slugs in saucers sprinkled with flour. A traditional Irish and Scottish form of divining one's future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name. This custom has survived among Irish and Scottish immigrants in the rural United States.
Unmarried women were frequently told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear. The custom was widespread enough to be commemorated on greeting cards from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The mirror gaze was one of many forms of love divination around Halloween and other ancient holy days.
The telling of ghost stories and viewing of horror films are common fixtures of Halloween parties. Episodes of TV series and specials with Halloween themes (with the specials usually aimed at children) are commonly aired on or before the holiday while new horror films, like the popular Saw films, are often released theatrically before the holiday to take advantage of the atmosphere.
Visiting a haunted attraction like a haunted house or hayride (especially in the northeastern or Midwest of the USA) are other Halloween practices. Notwithstanding the name, such events are not necessarily held in houses, nor are the edifices themselves necessarily regarded to have actual ghosts. A variant of the haunted house is the "haunted trail", where the public encounters supernatural-themed characters or presentations of scenes from horror films while following a trail through a field or forest. One of the largest Halloween attractions in the United States is Knott's Halloween Haunt at California's Knott's Berry Farm, which features re-themed amusement park rides and a dozen different walk through mazes, plus hundreds of costumed roving performers. Among other theme parks, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom stages a special separate admission event after regular park hours called Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party featuring a parade, stage show featuring Disney villains and a Happy HalloWishes fireworks show with a Halloween theme, while their sibling park in California, Disneyland Resort, holds Mickey's Trick-or-Treat Party at their California Adventure park. The Universal Studios theme parks in Hollywood and Orlando also feature annual Halloween events, dubbed Halloween Horror Nights. The Six Flags amusement parks also have Halloween events called Fright Fest in which visitors enjoy redecorated rides, costumed goals, special shows and more. Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream Tampa Bay and Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream Williamsburg also host a few weeks of Halloween-themed fun. There are many haunted houses each with a different theme, "scare zones" where costumed performers scare random passerby, live shows, special themed food and much more.
Because the holiday comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest, candy apples (also known as toffee or taffy apples) are a common Halloween treat made by rolling whole apples in a sticky sugar syrup, and sometimes rolling them in nuts. At one time, candy apples were commonly given to children, but the practice rapidly waned in the wake of widespread rumors that some individuals were embedding items like pins and razor blades in the apples. While there is evidence of such incidents, they are quite rare and have never resulted in serious injury. Nonetheless, many parents assumed that such heinous practices were rampant; at the peak of the hysteria, some hospitals offered free x-rays of children's Halloween hauls in order to find evidence of tampering. Virtually all of the few known candy poisoning incidents involved parents who poisoned their own children's candy, while there have been occasional reports of children putting needles in their own (and other children's) candy in a mere bid for attention.
One custom which persists in modern-day day Ireland is the baking (or more often nowadays the purchase) of a barmbrack (Irish "báirín breac"), which is a light fruit cake into which a plain ring is placed before baking. It is said that those who get a ring will find their true love in the ensuing year. See also king cake.
Unfortunately, there is frustratingly little primary documentation of how Halloween was celebrated in pre-industrial Ireland. Historian Nicholas Rogers has written,
It is not always easy to track the development of Halloween in Ireland and Scotland from the mid-seventeenth century, largely because one has to trace ritual practices from [modern] folkloric evidence that do not necessarily reflect how the holiday might have changed; these rituals may not be "authentic" or "timeless" examples of pre-industrial times.
The houses are frequently adorned with turnips carved into scary faces; lights or candles are sometimes placed inside the carvings to provide an eerie effect. The traditional Halloween cake in Ireland is the barmbrack, which is a fruit bread. Barmbrack is the centre of this Irish custom. The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, "to beat one's wife with", would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be married within the year. Commercially produced barmbracks for the Halloween market still include a toy ring.
Games are often played, such as bobbing for apples, where apples, peanuts and other nuts and fruit and some small coins are placed in a basin of water. The apples and nuts float, but the coins, which sink, are harder to catch. Everyone takes turns catching as many items possible using only their mouths. In some households, the coins are embedded in the fruit for the children to "earn" as they catch each apple. Another common game involves the hands-free eating of an apple hung on a string attached to the ceiling. Games of divination are also played at Halloween, but are becoming less popular.
At lunch-time (midday meal, sometimes called "dinner" in Ireland), a traditional Halloween meal Colcannon is eaten, often with coins wrapped in grease-proof paper mixed in. In recent decades the practice of midday dinners in the home has declined and with it this traditional Halloween ritual. Irish children typically have a week-long Mid-term break from school that coincides with Halloween which falls on the 31st of October.
Halloween was seen as being the time when the division between the world of the living and the otherworld was blurred. Many of the traditional customs derive from ancient divination practices and ways of trying to predict the future. By the 18th century, most of the customs were methods for young people to search for their future husbands or wives. As Samhainn was originally a harvest festival, many of these strange practices are connected with food or the harvest and fertility. One old custom associated with the Western Isles was to put two large nuts in the hearth of a peat fire. These were supposed to represent yourself and your intended spouse. If the nuts curled together when they warmed up then this was deemed to be a good omen, but if they jumped apart then it was time to look for another sweetheart. Islanders from Lewis traditionally poured ale into the sea in libation to a marine God called “Seonaidh” or “Shoney”on Celtic Samhain or Halloween, so that he would send seaweed to the shore to fertilise the fields for the coming year. Seonadh in Scottish Gaelic means, sorcery, augury, or Druidism, and it is possible that the custom of Shonaidh is the direct link to an ancient form of Celtic god worship that has been Christianised. As "Seonaidh", which is Gaelic "Johnny", it may also be a reference to one of St John, and an invocation of him.
Fire rituals were also important. Great bonfires were lit in a village, or by individual families, and when the fire died down, its ashes were used to form a circle and one stone for each member of the household was kept inside this circle near the circumference. If any stone were displaced or seemed broken by next morning, then the person to whom that stone belonged was believed to be destined to die within a year. A similar rite in north Wales includes a great bonfire called Coel Coeth’ being built for each family on Halloween. Later, the members of the household threw a white stone in the ashes marked in their name. Next morning, all the stones were searched for and if any stone were missing, then the person who threw that stone was believed to be destined to die before next Halloween. In particular, the village of Fortingall in Perthshire, held festivities on Carn na Marbh ‘Mound of the Dead',. This was the focal point of a Samhain festival. A great fire or “Samhnag” was lit atop it each year. The whole community took hands when it was blazing and danced round the mound both sunwise and anti-sunwise. As the fire began to wane, some of the younger boys took burning embers from the flames and ran throughout the field with them, finally throwing them into the air and dancing over them as they lay glowing on the ground. When the last embers were showing, the boys would have a leaping competition across the remains of the fire, reminiscent of the Beltane festival. When it was finished, the young people went home and ducked for apples and practised divination. There was no Scottish tradition of 'guising' here, the bonfire being the absolute centre of attention until it was consumed. The Samhain celebrations here apparently came to an end relatively late in 1924.
Houses were also protected with the same candle lanterns. If the spirits got past the protection of the lanterns, the Scottish custom was to offer the spirits parcels of food to leave and spare the house another year. Children too were given the added protection by disguising them as such creatures, in order to blend in with the spirits. If children approached the door of a house, they were also given offerings of food – Halloween being a harvest festival – which served to ward off the potential spirits that may lurk among them. This is where the origin of the practice of Scottish “guising” – a word which comes from 'disguising' – or going about in costume arose. It is now a key feature of the tradition of trick-or-treating practised in North America.
In modern-day Scotland this old tradition survives, chiefly in the form of children going door to door "guising", in this manner, that is, dressed in a disguise (often as a witch, ghost, monster, or another supernatural being) and offering entertainment of various sorts. If the entertainment is enjoyed, the children are rewarded with gifts of sweets, fruits, or money. There is no Scottish 'trick or treat' tradition as in North America; on the contrary, 'trick or treating' is an outgrowth of these Scottish guising customs.
Popular games played on the holiday include "dooking" for apples (i.e., retrieving an apple from a bucket of water using only one's mouth). In places, the game has been replaced (because of fears of contracting saliva-borne illnesses in the water) by standing over the bowl holding a fork in one's mouth, and releasing it in an attempt to skewer an apple using only gravity. Another popular game is attempting to eat, while blindfolded, a treacle or jam coated scone on a piece of string hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes the blindfold is left out, because it is already difficult to eat the scone. In all versions, however, the participants cannot use their hands.
In 2007, Halloween festival organisers in Perthshire said they wanted to move away from US-style celebrations, in favour of more culturally accurate traditions. Plans include abandoning the use of pumpkins, and reinstating traditional activities such as a turnip lantern competition and "dooking (ducking) for apples".
In parts of northern England, there is a traditional festival called Mischief Night which falls on the November 4. During the celebration, children play a range of "tricks" (ranging from minor to more serious) on adults. One of the more serious "tricks" might include the unhinging of garden gates (which were often thrown into ponds, or moved far away). In recent years, such acts have occasionally escalated to extreme vandalism, sometimes involving street fires.
Halloween celebrations in England were popularised in the late twentieth century under the pressure of American cultural influence, including a stream of films and television programmes aimed at children and adolescents, and the discovery by retail experts of a marketing opportunity to fill the empty space before Christmas. Between 2001 and 2006, consumer spending in the UK for Halloween rose tenfold from £12 m to £120 m, according to Bryan Roberts from industry analysts Planet Retail, making Halloween the third most profitable holiday for supermarkets. This led to the introduction of practices such as pumpkin carvings and trick-or-treat (see below). In England and Wales, trick-or-treating does still occur, although the practice is regarded by some as a nuisance or even a menacing form of begging.
Bobbing for apples is a well-established associated with Halloween. In the game, attempts are made with one's mouth only to catch an apple placed in a water-filled barrel. Once an apple is caught, it is sometimes peeled and tossed over the shoulder in the hope that the strips would fall into the shape of a letter, which would be the first initial of the participant's true love. According to another superstition, the longer the peel, the longer the peeler's life would be; some say that the first participant to get an apple would be the first to marry.
Other traditions include apple-bobbing and making toffee-apples and apple tarts. Apple tarts may be baked with a coin hidden inside, and nuts of all types are traditional Halloween fare. However, traditions are being lost under the relentless pressure of the American media, and some of today's children will arrive at a door and intone "trick-or-treat" in order to receive money and sweets.
There has been increasing concern about the potential for antisocial behaviour, particularly among older teenagers, on Halloween. Cases of houses being "egg-bombed", or having lit fireworks posted through the letterbox (especially when the occupants do not give money or gifts) have been reported, and the BBC reported that for Halloween 2006 police forces stepped up patrols to respond to such mischief.
Scottish-American and Irish-American societies held dinners and balls that celebrated their heritages, with perhaps a recitation of Robert Burns' poem "Halloween" or a telling of Irish legends, much as Columbus Day celebrations were more about Italian-American heritage than Columbus per se. Home parties centred on children's activities, such as bobbing for apples, and various divination games often concerning future romance. Not surprisingly, pranks and mischief were common as well.
The commercialization of Halloween in the United States did not start until the 20th century, beginning perhaps with Halloween postcards (featuring hundreds of designs) which were most popular between 1905 and 1915. Dennison Manufacturing Company, which published its first Hallowe'en catalog in 1909, and the Beistle Company were pioneers in commercially made Halloween decorations, particularly die-cut paper items. German manufacturers specialised in Halloween figurines that were exported to the United States in the period between the two world wars.
There is little primary documentation of masking or costuming on Halloween in the United States or elsewhere, before 1900. Mass-produced Halloween costumes did not appear in stores until the 1930s, and trick-or-treating did not become a fixture of the holiday until the 1950s.
In the 1990s, many manufacturers began producing a larger variety of Halloween yard decorations; before this a majority of decorations were homemade. Some of the most popular yard decorations are jack-o'-lanterns, scarecrows, witches, orange string lights, inflatable decorations (such as spiders, pumpkins, mummies and vampires), and animatronic window and door decorations. Other popular decorations are foam tombstones and gargoyles.
Halloween is now the United States' second most popular holiday (after Christmas) for decorating; the sale of candy and costumes are also extremely common during the holiday, which is marketed to children and adults alike. According to the National Retail Federation, the most popular Halloween costume themes for adults are, in order: witch, pirate, vampire, cat and clown. Each year, popular costumes are dictated by various current events and pop culture icons.On many college campuses, Halloween is a major celebration, with the Friday and Saturday nearest October 31 hosting many costume parties.
The National Confectioners Association reported in 2005 that 80 percent of American adults planned to give out candy to trick-or-treaters, and that 93 percent of children planned to go trick-or-treating.
Madison, Wisconsin, home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hosts one of the more infamous annual Halloween celebrations. Due to the large influx of out-of-towners crowding the State Street area, riots have broken out in recent years, resulting in the use mounted police and tear gas to disperse the crowds.
Anoka, Minnesota, the self-proclaimed "Halloween Capital of the World", celebrates the holiday with a large civic parade and several other city-wide events. Salem, Massachusetts, also has laid claim to the "Halloween Capital" title, while trying to dissociate itself from its history of persecuting witchcraft. At the same time, however, the city does see a great deal of tourism surrounding the Salem witch trials, especially around Halloween. In the 1990s, the city added an official "Haunted Happenings" celebration to the October tourist season.. Nearby Keene, New Hampshire, hosts the annual Pumpkin Fest each October which previously held the record for having the greatest number of lit jack-o'-lanterns at once. (Boston, Massachusetts holds the record as of October 2006). In Atlanta, Georgia, the Little Five Points neighborhood hosts the Little Five Points Halloween Parade on the weekend before October 31st each year.
Rutland, Vermont has hosted the annual Rutland Halloween Parade since 1960. Tom Fagan, a local comic book fan, is credited with having a hand in the parade's early development and superhero theme. In the early 1970s, the Rutland Halloween Parade achieved a degree of fame when it was used as the setting of a number of superhero comic books, including Batman #237, Justice League of America #103, Amazing Adventures #16 and The Mighty Thor #207.
New York City hosts the United States' largest Halloween celebration, known as The Village Halloween Parade. Started by Greenwich Village mask maker Ralph Lee in 1973, the evening parade now attracts over two million spectators and participants, as well as roughly four million television viewers annually. It is the largest participatory parade in the country if not the world, encouraging spectators to march in the parade as well.
In many towns and cities, trick-or-treaters are welcomed by lit porch lights and jack-o'-lanterns. In some large and/or crime ridden areas, however, trick-or-treating is discouraged, or refocused to staged trick-or-treating events within nearby shopping malls, in order to prevent potential acts of violence against trick-or-treaters. Even where crime is not an issue, many American towns have designated specific hours for trick-or-treating, e.g., 5-7 pm or 5-8 pm, to discourage late-night trick-or-treating.
Those living in the country may hold Halloween parties, often with bonfires, with the celebrants passing between them. The parties usually involve traditional games (like snipe hunting, bobbing for apples, or searching for candy in a similar manner to Easter egg hunting), haunted hayrides (often accompanied by scary stories, and costumed people hiding in the dark to jump out and scare the riders), and treats (usually a bag of candy and/or homemade treats). Scary movies may also be viewed. Normally, the children are picked up by their parents at predetermined times. However, it is not uncommon for such parties to include sleepovers.
Trick-or-treating may often end by early evening, but the nightlife thrives in many urban areas. Halloween costume parties provide an opportunity for adults to gather and socialize. Urban bars are frequented by people wearing Halloween masks and risqué costumes. Many bars and restaurants hold costume contests to attract customers to their establishments. Haunted houses are also popular in some areas.
In Western Canada, fireworks displays and a civic bonfire are part of the festivities.
In Mexico, Halloween has been celebrated during the last 48 years. There, celebrations have been influenced by the American traditions, such as the costuming of children who visit the houses of their neighbourhood in search of candy. Though the "trick-or-treat" motif is used, tricks are not generally played on residents not providing candy. Older crowds of preteens, teenagers and adults will sometimes organize Halloween-themed parties, which might be scheduled on the nearest available weekend. Usually kids stop by at peoples' houses, knock on their door or the ring the bell and say "¡Noche de Brujas , Halloween!" ('Witches' Night-- Halloween!').
Halloween in Mexico begins three days of consecutive holidays, as it is followed by All Saints' Day, which also marks the beginning of the two day celebration of the Day of the Dead or the Día de los Muertos. This might account for the initial explanations of the holiday having a traditional Mexican-Catholic slant.
In the southern hemisphere, spring is in full swing by October 31, and the days are rapidly growing longer and brighter. This does not mesh well with the traditional Celtic spirit of Halloween, which relies on an atmosphere of the encroaching darkness of winter and the turning of the leaves. Halloween has gained little recognition in Australia and New Zealand, largely through American media influences, with few families in Australia enjoying the tradition. In 2006, costume shops reported a rise in sales on Halloween-themed costumes, on October 31, 2006 and have reported a steady increase on October 31, 2007. On Halloween night, horror films and horror-themed TV episodes are traditionally aired, and currently, Halloween private parties are more commonly held than actual "trick-or-treating", however both are still observed. Trick or treating is generally only done in the trick-or-treater's neighbourhood.
Halloween is largely uncelebrated in the Caribbean. However, like Australia and New Zealand, the event is not unheard of in the Caribbean and is seeing some increase in popularity.
In some parts of the British West Indies, there are celebrations commemorating Guy Fawkes Night that occur around the time of Halloween. The celebrations include using firecrackers, blowing bamboo joints and similar activities. And in other island they celebrate All Saints'. On this evening they go to the cemetery to sing, and light candles on the tomb of their loved ones.
On the island of Bonaire, the children of a town typically gather to trick-or-treat for sweets among the town shops (instead of people's homes, as in other countries).
Hong Kong, a former British colony, does celebrate Halloween every year unlike the Mainland.
Many Christians ascribe no negative significance to Halloween, treating it as a purely secular holiday devoted to celebrating “imaginary spooks” and handing out candy. Halloween celebrations are common among Roman Catholic parochial schools throughout North America and in Ireland. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church sees Halloween as having a Christian connection. Father Gabriele Amorth, a Vatican-appointed exorcist in Rome, has said, "[I]f English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that. Most Christians hold the view that the tradition is far from being "satanic" in origin or practice and that it holds no threat to the spiritual lives of children: being taught about death and mortality, and the ways of the Celtic ancestors actually being a valuable life lesson and a part of many of their parishioners' heritage. Other Christians, primarily of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist variety, are concerned about Halloween, and reject the holiday because they believe it trivializes (and celebrates) “the occult” and what they perceive as evil. A response among some fundamentalists in recent years has been the use of Hell houses or themed pamphlets (such as those of Jack T. Chick) which attempt to make use of Halloween as an opportunity for evangelism. Some consider Halloween to be completely incompatible with the Christian faith due to its origin as a Pagan "festival of the dead." In more recent years, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has organised a "Saint Fest" on the holiday.
Some Wiccans feel that the tradition is offensive to "real witches" for promoting stereotypical caricatures of "wicked witches". However, other Neopagans, perhaps most of them, see it as a harmless holiday in which some of the old traditions are celebrated by the mainstream culture, albeit in a different manner.