Costumes, jack o’lanterns, candy, haunted houses, and trick-or-treating are all words that invite us to think about Halloween. In America this annual holiday is celebrated on October 31st of each year. But where did this widely practiced tradition originate, and how has it changed over the years?


The origin of Halloween dates back thousands of years to the geographic area presently known as Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France. Celtic people celebrated the ancient festival of the Celtic New Year on November 1st, as well as Samhain the night prior to the New Year, October 31st. Samhain was believed to be the day where the worlds of the living and dead interfaced, and spirits of the dead returned to the earth. In an attempt to ward off ghosts people would make sacrifices, leave offerings, and light bonfires. If there was a need to leave the house people would wear masks and slip out after dark to pass as spirits themselves.

An American Halloween

Eventually the tradition of Halloween migrated to North America, however the celebration of this holiday was limited secondary to strict religious beliefs. Over time the blending of different customs and cultures between Europeans and Native Americans led to the creation of a new American version of Halloween. Initially this tradition consisted of fortune telling, harvest celebrations, and ghost stories. But after taking cues from European traditions the American Halloween experience started to involve dressing up in costumes. And with continued influx of immigrants from different countries, the tradition of Halloween continued to evolve. For example, the practice of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns is attributed to Irish immigrants in the 19th century. This tradition was meant to honor souls that were trapped in purgatory.

It is best estimated that the tradition we know of as “trick-or-treating” started with what is known as All Souls’ Day which started in England. During this event the poor would beg for food and they were given pastries called “soul cakes” with the agreement to pray for relatives of the family who had died.

As time passed Halloween become a more communal and family friendly holiday where friends and neighbors would get together to celebrate. There was less focus on the gruesome aspects of the ancient tradition and more focus on party games, seasonal foods, and costumes.

How is Halloween Celebrated Internationally?

There are many different countries that celebrate traditions similar to the Halloween we know and love, with a few fun twists.

In Mexico Dia de los Muertos also known as the “Day of the Dead” is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd annually. Participants dress up as deceased family members and build altars to honor them, offering gifts, food, and drinks.

In China the “Hungry Ghost Festival” involves offerings of food to the deceased as well as parades and opera to keep the spirits entertained.

In Haiti the “Festival of the Ancestors” or Fed Gede is what is known as a “voodoo” holiday where participants light candles, and visit ancestral burial places.

In South Korea, a harvest festival called “Chuseok” is celebrated by visiting one’s hometown and participating in a feast to honor their ancestors.

In the Philippines “Pangangaluluwâ” is celebrated on November 1. Children go from door to door and sing. In return they are given sweet treats.

In Japan the tradition of “Obon” is a 3 day Buddhist festival which honors spirits of ancestors. The living take trips to their ancestor’s graves and celebrate with traditional dances.

In the United States Halloween is an event that many children and adults look forward to. Whether it means passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, decorating a haunted house, throwing a party, or putting a costume on the family dog, the idea is the same… to have a good time. However, it is also important to remember that certain precautions should be taken to be sure Halloween is safe for all involved.

There’s No Such Thing as Being Too Careful

According to the National Safety Council (NSC) children are greater than 2X as likely to be hit by a vehicle and killed on Halloween compared to any other day of the year. Data from 2017 indicated that October was ranked number 2 in deaths by car accidents, only second to the month of July. In 2017 there were over 3,500 deaths in July, and over 3,500 deaths in October.

Sometimes kids can be so excited about the prospect of trick-or-treating and getting to eat their candy that they don’t think of the potential dangers of such a celebrated activity. It is important to remind kids that they need to be especially vigilant when it comes to watching where they are walking, and pay attention to drivers and traffic. Remind kids that even though they are excited, that is not an excuse for doing dangerous things like running across the street without looking, entering houses without an adult, or eating candy before it has been inspected by adults for safety.

Halloween Safety Tips

Regardless of how you decide to spend your Halloween, remember to celebrate it safely.

If you are trick-or-treating with children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an acronym called “S-A-F-E H-A-L-L-O-W-E-E-N” which reminds parents and chaperones of potential dangers to look out for, and to better teach our kids safe habits.

S- Costume accessories should be “short, soft, and flexible”

A- “Adult.” Do not trick or treat alone.

F- “Fasten” reflective tape to your costume to help drivers see you

E- “Examine” all treats/candy for potential hazards. Do not eat anything that has already been opened or is suspicious looking

H- “Hold” a flashlight so you can see and be seen

A- “Allergies,” make sure to test new products i.e. makeup on a small area of skin before applying fully in case there is a negative reaction to a product

L- “Look” both ways before crossing the street

L- “Lower” risk for eye irritation by avoiding non-prescription contact lessons

O- “Only” use sidewalks or the far side of the road when walking from house to house

W- “Wear” clothing and accessories that fit well to avoid tripping, falling, and decreasing field of vision

E- “Eat” only factory prepared sealed treats/foods. Do not eat homemade items made by strangers.

E- “Enter” homes i.e. haunted houses only if accompanied by an adult. Do not get into a stranger’s car

N- “Never” walk near candles especially given that many costume fabrics are flammable.

Whenever possible wear flame resistant costumes.

Have fun. Be safe. And have a Happy Halloween!

*Originally published on the Inpathy Bulletin

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