Celtic symbol made of stone

The History of Halloween and How It Is Celebrated Around The World

Halloween is a holiday which is celebrated each year on October 31. It has its origins from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced: Sow-in). Samhain was a festivity during which people lit bonfires and danced wearing costumes to ward off ghosts. During the 8th century and the times of Pope Gregory III, November 1 became the day to honor all saints.

Today’s All Saints’ Day now incorporates most traditions of Samhain and is celebrated one day after All Hollows’ Eve, which later turned into Halloween.

Ancient Origins

Halloween has, as mentioned in the introduction, a Celtic origin. The Celts mostly lived in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France. They actually celebrated their New Year’s on the 1st of November – obviously, they did not follow our modern yearly calendar. November 1 marks the day of the end of summer and the harvest. In conclusion, it also marks the beginning of a cold and dark winter, which is and was often associated with human death.

On the night before New Year’s Day, the line between the living and the dead became blurry. Samhain was believed to be the time during which the ghosts of the dead return to the earth. Once these ghosts step foot on earthly ground, priests have a greater chance to predict the future. These prophecies were deeply important to them because, in contrast to our modern world, they did solemnly depend on the volatile natural world.

Celtic druids built sacred bonfires to burn human and animal corpses as sacrifices to Celtic deities. During this procedure, they wore costumes of animal heads and skins, which is one origin of today’s dressing up on Halloween.

43 A.D., in the Roman Empire, two Roman holidays merged with Samhain. One was called Feralia. It was a day celebrated in late October to commemorate the dead. The second one was Pomona. Pomona is the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The fact that her symbol was an apple could explain the tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.

How Halloween came to the US

Early Halloween celebrations were limited in colonial New England due to their protestant belief system. It was way more common in Maryland and the Southern colonies, and telling ghost stories and mischief-making.

During the second half of the 19th century, many Irish fled to the US due to the Irish Potato Famine. With the arrival of the Irish in the US came the celebration of Halloween.

All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day

The influence of Christianity spread so far into the Celtics that it even blended with Celtic rites. All Saints’ Day is also known as All Hollows’ Day to commemorate all the saints of the church.

From 1000 A.D. onwards, November 2, the day after All Saints’ Day, is All Souls’ Day. All Souls’ Day, originally, was a way to replace the Celtic festival of the dead, and was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with bonfires, parades, and costumes. Today, it is celebrated as a day of prayer and remembrance for those who have died.

Halloween myths

Close-up shot of a black cat with green eyes
Credit: Hannah Troupe / Unsplash

Halloween is a holiday filled to the brim with mystery, magic, and superstition. Although it began as a Celtic end-of-summer festivity, it has now turned into something completely different. However, superstition and mystery are still a big part of it.

One of the superstitions is avoiding crossing paths with black cats, since they bring bad luck. The actual reason for this behavior is, that people in the Middle Ages believed that witches used to turn into black cats as a way of avoiding detection.

Moreover, we try to avoid walking under a ladder. This might stem from the ancient Egyptians. They believed that triangles were sacred. However, walking underneath a ladder can simply tend to be fairly unsafe, which could also be a reason.

Furthermore, most try to avoid breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks in the roads, or spilling salt.

Halloween traditions

Halloween is about celebrating the dead, but the traditions actually focus a lot on the future instead of the past and on the living instead of the dead. There are many traditions, but these two might be the most popular ones.

Trick or treat

Wooden sign reading trick or treat
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It was actually the Europeans who inspired this tradition. They used to walk around town and ask for money and food in exchange for singing carols. Women used to believe they could lure in their future husbands with tricks.

During the late 1800s, the spirit of Halloween changed. It was now more about community and neighbourly gatherings. By the turn of the century, it changed again. This time to being more about parties for kids and adults with games and foods of the season.

The All Souls’ Day parades in England may have also been an influence, since they were about people walking around town begging for food. In return for “soul cakes”, they gave prayers for dead relatives.

Finding romance

Wedding in front of a person proposing
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Many of the lesser-known traditions had to do with young women trying to find their one true match. They believed that if they could identify their future husband this year, they would be married by next Halloween. In the 18th century in Ireland, matchmaking cooks buried rings in mashed potatoes in hopes of bringing true love to the one finding them.

In Scotland, many fortune-tellers tell eligible young women to name a hazelnut for each of the men that is suitable and then to throw it into a burning fire. The one that burned to ashes instead of popping or exploding represented the future husband.

In another tale, it says that if a young woman ate a sugar concoction made from walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg before going to bed on Halloween’s night, she would be meeting her future husband in her dreams.

Superstition was big back then. Women tried tossing apple-peels in hopes of them landing in the shape of their future husband’s initials, peered at egg yolks, read candles – the list goes on. There were even very competitive rituals, like the first one finding a burr on a chestnut-hunt being the first one to marry. Of course, whether we’re asking for romantic advice or trying to avoid seven years of bad luck, each one of these Halloween superstitions relies on the goodwill of the very same “spirits” whose presence the early Celts felt so keenly.

Halloween around the world

I guess the most popular thing we think about when hearing the word Halloween is trick-or-treating in the USA. But there are actually many more ways that Halloween is celebrated (or not celebrated) around the world.

North America (USA)

Halloween lantern in Disneyland
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Halloween wasn’t actually a holiday until the 19th century because of the strict puritan traditions. However, at the turn of the 20th century, Halloween turned into a night of vandalism and cruelty to both animals and people. Boy scouts and neighborhood organizations began to end the destruction and create a safe get-together.

Nowadays, Halloween is the second biggest holiday in the US, right behind Christmas. There are countless parades, and one of the most memorable might be New York’s village Halloween Parade with over 50,000 people marching up 6th Avenue.

South America (Mexico)

Colorful Dia de los muertos make-up on two people
Credit: Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández / Unsplash

In Mexico, Latin America, and Spain, Halloween isn’t really called Halloween. It is the “Día de los Muertos”, day of the dead. It is a three-day celebration, from October 31 to November 2, to commemorate the dead.

Most families construct an altar for the dead in their families. They honor the deceased and decorate it with flowers, photographs, and candy. Some even put the favorite foods of the dead besides, so the spirits have a feast when they return to the earth.

Additionally, candles and incense can help the deceased find their way back home. Moreover, graves are tidied with new flowers, wreaths, and paper streamers. On November 2, relatives meet up at the graves to reminisce and picnic.

Asia (China)

People in China celebrate the hungry ghost festival in mid-July. They float river lanterns to remember those who have passed. The mainland is less influenced than, for example, Hong-Kong, since it is generally less influenced by Anglo traditions.

Traditional trick-or-treating is fairly hard in Hong-Kong. The vast majority of the city is covered in skyscrapers and high-rise apartment blocks. However, there are some catering companies and managers who arrange parties for the children living in these buildings.

Moreover, trick-or-treating is a thing in some super exclusive gated communities, like The Beverly Hills in Discovery Bay.

The Lan Kwai Fong area of Hong-Kong is known for its entertainment district for the international community. It is also here, where Halloween parties and parades have taken place for over 20 years now.


Halloween is becoming more and more popular in Australia and New Zealand, even though it has little to no significance to Australian culture. Actually, they don’t want too much American pop-culture influence. Since most of the neighborhoods don’t take part in any kind of celebration, some have thought of an idea. They hang up balloons or obvious signs which indicate that they want to take part and, for example, be a stop for trick-or-treating.

Europe (Ireland)

Three kids in their Halloween costumes
Credit: Yaroslav Shuraev / Pexels

In Ireland, which is the birth country of Halloween, it’s all about a nice get-together. Neighbors meet up, light bonfires, go tick-or-treating, or visit some of the Halloween parties around. They also play games like snap-apple, treasure hunts, or card games.

The traditional Halloween food is Barnbrack, which is a fruitcake with a muslin-wrapped treat supposed to foretell the eater’s future. He who finds a ring will marry soon, and he who finds a straw will have a prosperous year ahead.

Halloween Movies

Wallpaper of Pennywise
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There are countless scary movies out there, but not all of them are a perfect fit for Halloween. “So, how do we know which ones are?” – Well, I’m glad you asked. Look at the following and put them all on your list.

  • Halloween: Michael Myers murders his 17-year-old sister and is committed to jail. He escapes on Halloween night and seeks out his old home. And new targets.
  • It: Pennywise is a clown tormenting the town of Derry, Maine. Seven children face him and 27 years later, he returns to Derry and the children, now adults, bond together to defeat him.
  • US: Adelaide Wilson returns to her childhood home. Four masked invaders enter her home, and the family has to fight all the attackers. Slowly, they start to realize who is really underneath the masks.
  • The invisible man: Cecelia’s ex-boyfriend is a mad scientist and stages his own suicide, simply to torment her. She is being terrorized and the police believe not one word, which is why she decides to take matters into her own hands.
  • The nun: A young nun takes her own life. The Vatican sends a novitiate and a priest to find out the truth about the tragic incident. The two find out more than they wanted to, and their souls will be at stake.
  • Silence of the lambs: Clarice Starling wants to join the FBI. She is sent to interview a brilliant, but violently psychopathic person (Lecter) serving a lifetime sentence. Dr. Hannibal Lecter answers all her questions and helps her with her case. The longer the two work together, the worse it gets.

Fun facts about Halloween

Pumpkin Jack o' Lantern for Halloween
Eleni Petrounakou / Unsplash
  • ¼ of all candy in the US is purchased for Halloween
  • More and more people have started buying costumes for their pets. Nearly 490 million dollars were spent.
  • Jack o’ Lanterns stem from the legend of Stingy Jack. He was a man who fooled the devil and was forced to walk the earth with only a burning coal in a hollowed turnip as a light.
  • Top Halloween costumes are a witch, vampire, cat, batman, or a ghost. Or, you know, the, how do I say it, more sexual versions of all of them.
  • The longest haunted house stretches over 3,564 feet underground and is in Lewisburg, Ohio.
  • The fear of Halloween is called ‘Samhainophobia’.

Halloween in a nutshell

Halloween is way more than what we see on television or what we know of through social media and the news. It is a holiday with a long and deep history. Moreover, it wasn’t actually “born” in the USA (Springsteen pun intended), but stems from the European. It isn’t celebrated everywhere in the world, but is slowly increasing in popularity.

Whether it is a thing where you come from or not, it is definitely worth visiting a Halloween party when you get the chance. Even if you just do it for the sake of it.

Feature image credit: Toni Cuenca / Pexels

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