Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Origins of Halloween

Posted by Ethan Clow on November 1, 2009

Ah Halloween, the day where we dress up like monsters and extort candy from our neighbors. Good times. On the show this week, we discussed some Halloween myths and legends including the origins of Halloween and where the holiday came from.

Like most holidays Halloween’s origin is a combination of festivals and holidays that varied across culture and region. The generally accepted origin is Samhain, a Gaelic festival possibly centered on the fall harvest or new years it may also have been a festival celebrating the dead. There are other reasons to believe Halloween is descended from Samhain: the festival in ancient Ireland had a number of interesting similarities, including hallowed out turnips that held embers of bonfires and were placed outside the homes of the people, akin to carving pumpkins today.

Another idea suggests All-Saints Day, Catholic holiday that celebrates all the saints, possibly strategically placed in the fall season to sync up with the many pagan holidays that existed across Europe during the Middle Ages. You can also include All Souls Day, another Catholic holiday that celebrates the dearly departed dead. These two holidays are where you get the word Halloween from, All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve. They also wore masks and costumes to ward off evil spirits.

However there’s one big problem with this reasoning. It’s a logical fallacy. Post-hoc reasoning, essentially saying A preceded and is similar to B, therefore B is caused/related to A.

We have to remember that virtually every culture had a “festival of death.”

The problem with trying to trace the origins of Halloween back is that like all modern holidays, Halloween draws influences from many different festivals and holidays throughout history. Not only can one see the changes and evolution of holidays in European history from the fall of the Roman Empire and the Christianization of Europe to the Industrial Revolution, but pretty much every culture has a “day of the dead” festival, usually around the beginning of Fall, which isn’t surprising since Fall is the season of leaves turning color, plants dying, harvests ending…etc.

But what about all the similarities to Samhain? Well, people have been dressing up in costumes for a long time, the notion of begging for food had already been well established in history. People say that Irish immigration during the Great Potato Famine was how Halloween came to America. That’s a reasonable hypothesis, but its unlikely that the modern Halloween is significantly related to the culture of the Irish immigrants. Halloween as we know it is pretty much only celebrated in North America.

That leads to the origin of Trick and Treating:

Which is to say, very recent. Possibly even as recent as 1950’s. Early reports occur in the 1920’s and even a bit earlier but it doesn’t necessarily imply Trick and Treating, most likely it’s just the tricking. The actual ritual that we would recognize as Trick and Treating doesn’t really appear until the 1940’s (in a mainstream form.)

However, by the 1950’s there were books and newspaper articles, and even Disney cartoons about Trick or Treating and that’s really the first time we see any documentation that it’s widespread.

What about all the old pagan rituals that had something like trick or treating?

Well again that’s post-hoc reasoning. But nevertheless, people often assume that Samhain was the origin of Halloween and that it was brought to North America by Irish and Scottish immigrants, particularly during the Irish Potato Famine, however this doesn’t really stand up with evidence. For example pumpkin carving in North America is evidenced long before the Irish Potato Farming. And while there were lots of rituals across Europe that seemed like trick or treating it’s unlikely they were related.

Different cultures produced similar folklore and festivals, it does not mean their related.

Ethan the Freethinking Historian


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