Why do we celebrate Halloween?

kids trick or treating on halloween

Jessica Taylor Yates

Posted October 25, 2021


Carving pumpkins, dressing up and trick-or-treating has increasingly become a part of Australia’s October calendar. But do you know why we celebrate Halloween on October 31st? 

Get out your witches’ hats and stock up on sweets, because Halloween is here! An extremely popular tradition in the United States, the Halloween festival has taken off in recent years in Australia, with kids enjoying the time-old tradition of dressing up, neighbours taking delight in setting up scary front garden displays, and retailers at the ready for a variety of props, decorations, pumpkins, and Halloween-themed treats. 

But where does the idea of carving pumpkins and getting treats from neighbours on Halloween come from? 


The origins of Halloween

You may have heard of All Saints Day or Day of the Dead, which has been popularised in recent years in family films like Coco or The Book of Life. Established to pay respects to those who have passed, All Saints Day on November 1st was popular with the Celtic festival known as ‘Samhain,’ which celebrated the end of summer (or end of the harvest in other parts of the world). Day of the Dead is still very popular in countries like Mexico on November 2nd.

So, on October 31st, with the seasons changing, the Celtics believed that the barrier between the ‘other’ world and their own became thin, and would give a greater ability to connect with the dead before their return. It was thought these evil spirits would come to earth to haunt the humans and destroy the harvest. To banish evil spirits, people would light bonfires, dress up to ‘ward off the ghosts’ that were coming the following day, and put out ‘offerings’ for the spirits and souls due for return in November. 

That said, not all the spirits were thought of as bad – the Celtics would also leave out food offerings and light candles along the road for their ancestors or friendly spirits to find their way back to the ‘spirit world.’ 

This night, October 31st, was referred to as ‘All Hallow’s Eve,' with ‘hallow’ meaning ‘to honour as holy’, and ‘eve’ or ‘een’ as the night before. So basically ‘Halloween’ means the ‘holy evening’ or ‘Eve of All Hallows.’

Why do we celebrate Halloween in Australia? 

Well, you could put it down to globalisation – the ever-present media attention to Halloween in books, TV shows and films that we watch from the US, the availability to shop for Halloween goods easily online, and, well – it can be fun! 

Even though its origins were from Pagan Celtics, with roots around the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, these traditions were brought to the US with Irish immigration in the 19th century, and popularised into the rituals we know today – much like St Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day before it. 

Why do we dress up in Halloween costumes?

On the night before All Saints Day, that we now know as Halloween, the Celtics would dress up as evil spirits to ward off ghosts, often to try and confuse the ‘real’ demons from coming to get them.  

Traditionally, Halloween costumes would still have some sort of ‘spooky’ element – ghouls, witches, ghosts and wizards – although these days, any kind of costume can apply! 

Why do we go trick or treating?

As far as trying your luck on a neighbour’s door for a snickers bar or being sprayed with a water hose, this tradition came from children who were dressed in the aforementioned outfits to ward off demons, and would go door to door for food and money on behalf of the dead. This was referred to as ‘souling,’ where the ‘soulers’ who knocked would offer their prayers for the souls in exchange for food such as 'soul cake.' In the early 20th century, neighbours would give children treats – in an attempt to ward themselves off from any tricks from the pranking youngsters! 

kids celebrating Halloween with pumpkins and costumes

From trick or treating to pumpkin carving, there are lots of fun activities we celebrate on Halloween with mystic origins. Image: Getty. 


 

What do pumpkins and bobbing for apples have to do with Halloween? 

There are some aspects we have come to align with Halloween just like pine trees with Christmas – witches’ hats, pumpkin carving, dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating, just to name a few.  

Jack o’lanterns - more of an urban legend than factual tale, the story goes that a man named ‘Stingy Jack’ was an unsavoury character who was not allowed into heaven. Instead, ‘Stingy Jack’ was sent by the Devil into the dark with nothing but a piece of coal to light the way. Jack put it into a turnip to make it glow and has apparently been ‘roaming the earth ever since.’ 

As he uses the turnip as a coal-burning lantern, he went from Jack of the Lantern to simple ‘Jack-o-lantern.’ Children would then put candles into turnips and carve evil faces on them to ‘ward off’ evil spirits to commemorate – but as pumpkins were more native to the US (and easier to carve) these began to get used instead.  

Perhaps this is to be taken with a grain of salt (or bite of pumpkin pie) but it makes for some fun storytelling nonetheless! 

Witches – often seen as wicked mystical women, witches were often believed to be associated with the Devil and demon worship, and so anything ‘witch-like’ was aligned with the demons, including black cats (that were thought to be popular with the ‘witching’ community). While there jury is still out on the origin of witches on broomsticks, one such theory is that broomsticks were thrown into the bonfires burnt on All Hallow’s Eve, which the witches would ‘take and fly off on’ to their 'illicit' activities.  

Apple bobbling - perhaps more popular in America, is also the time-honoured tradition of bobbing for apples. Apparently, this was a practise people would undertake to find their spouse – think of it as old-time matchmaking! Women would mark an apple and toss it in the water. Whichever male pulled out their apple, well, was their ‘destined’ partner, according to the apple tub! 

halloween pumpkins

Jack-o'-lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits, but these days, it's all abut the best pumpkin carving or ghoulish face! Image: Getty. 


 

Why is it celebrated so differently now? 

Over time, as the celebration was brought into modern times and the mystic Pagan elements of the holiday became diluted, Halloween became a part of the mainstream calendar through slick marketing campaigns, pop culture, fun community activities, and more widespread, light-hearted appeal. 

Whilst it still has more of a commercial hold in the United States – with expectations of retail spend for the holiday at over $10 billion – it is quickly growing in appeal in Australia.

Though there may be naysayers, for many, 2020 and 2021 have been a very difficult period, and so anything that can bring joy to peoples’ faces in a safe way is here to be celebrated. From dressing up in costumes to carving pumpkins, themed front yard displays, making ‘scary’ cookies, and perhaps even being able to attend a Halloween-themed event or spooky location, it seems this is one event where the fun has outwon the cynics – so they best beware for tricks coming their way this All Hallow’s Eve!  


Related reading