The Real Spooky History Behind Your Favourite Halloween Traditions

For most people, Halloween conjures up fun memories of costumes, trick-or-treating and, more recently, pumpkin spiced lattes. But this favourite holiday has some eerie origins dating back over 2,000 years ago.


Carving pumpkins


Almost every household will have a carved pumpkin lantern outside their door this Halloween, but those scary faces are meant to frighten more than mischievous trick or treaters. In fact, carving guards into lanterns dates back to ancient Africa, when they were used to ward off evil spirits.

The term Jack O’Lantern itself also has a scary origin. In Irish folklore, Satan was supposedly tricked by a man named Jack, who trapped him in a tree and made him vow to never take his soul. Knowing that he couldn’t be taken to hell, Jack lived a selfish and sinful life. However, because of this not only could he not go to hell, he also wasn’t allowed into heaven and when he died he was trapped in between. He begged Satan to let him go to hell, but instead, the devil threw a piece of burning coal at the dead man. Jack put the blazing coal inside a turnip to create a lantern and is doomed to eternally wander the earth looking for a final resting place.

You might think the turnip lantern a little strange, but traditionally throughout Britain, we continued to use turnips, swedes and even fruits like apples as our Halloween lanterns until the fairly modern introduction of the pumpkin, which was made popular by American culture.


Halloween Costumes 


The ancient Celts’ celebrated Samhain, celebrating the end of the harvest festival. The early pagan holiday also involved many ritualistic ceremonies in order to connect with the spirits of the dead, as the veil between the living and the dead was thinner at this time of year. They believed that wearing a mask or a costume, most likely as simple as animal hides, during these celebrations would disguise them against any evil spirits they were unlucky enough to encounter. As Christianity grew more popular, the pagan rituals of Halloween lessened, but the costumes stayed.


Apple Bobbing 

Apple Bobbing

Apple bobbing seems like a fun, friendly Halloween past-time, right? Sure now it might be, but this tradition has some sinister history behind it. Throughout the 1800s, this became a popular fortune-telling game on Halloween; apples would be marked to represent potential suitors and the apple that the woman ended up biting into would represent her supposed future husband.

This isn’t the only match-making ritual that women took part during Halloween. Women would also throw apple peels over their shoulder on Halloween night hoping that the shape it made would show the initials of the man they were supposed to marry. Be careful which apple you bite into this Halloween!



Asking for Soul Cakes

The best known Halloween tradition, trick-or-treating, could have roots in the Celtic ritual of offering fruit and vegetables to honour the dead during Samhain. As the religious and political landscapes changed, variations of trick-or-treating came back throughout the centuries. In medieval times, poor people would visit the homes of wealthier families asking for ‘soul cakes’, a small baked treat, in return for praying for the spirits of the homeowner’s dead relatives during Halloween celebrations. This eventually evolved into the trick-or-treating we know now.


Words by Rhiannon Everton


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