Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?

Halloween has been around for more than a thousand years. Originally a religious observance, it became increasingly secular over the centuries until its religious trappings all but disappeared. Today Halloween is considered a holiday for dress-up and fun, especially for children.

Halloween’s origins can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain, which was held on November 1 in contemporary calendars. It was believed that on that day, the souls of the dead returned to their homes, so people dressed in costumes and lit bonfires to ward off spirits. In this way, popular Halloween tropes such as witches, ghosts, and goblins became associated with the holiday.

In the 7th century CE, Pope Boniface IV created All Saints Day, originally celebrated on May 13. A century later, Pope Gregory III moved the holiday to November 1, likely as a Christian substitute for the pagan festival of Samhain. The day before the saintly celebration became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

Though the holiday began in Celtic regions of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France, it quickly spread to other parts of the world. The first American colonists in New England were forbidden to celebrate it for religious reasons, though it enjoyed some popularity in the Southern colonies. By the 1800s, fall festivals marking the seasonal harvest incorporated Halloween elements, and Irish immigrants escaping the devastating Potato Famine brought with them many Halloween traditions that remain today.

The custom of trick-or-treating, in which children dress up in costume and solicit treats from neighbors, became popular in the United States in the early 20th century as Irish and Scottish communities revived the Old World custom of “guising,” in which a person would dress in costume and tell a joke, recite a poem, or perform some other trick in exchange for a piece of fruit or other treat. By 1950, trick-or-treating for candy had become one of Halloween’s most popular activities. Today, Halloween is one of the biggest holidays for candy sales in the United States, exceeding $2.5 billion annually.

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