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Why do we celebrate Halloween? From its origins to trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving

Kids trick-or-treating on Halloween
Are you taking the kids trick-or-treating this Halloween? (Getty Images)

Whether you host a costume party each year, quietly carve pumpkins at home or close the curtains and ignore trick-or-treaters, Halloween – aka All Hallows' Eve – has finally arrived.

The spooky season is hard to avoid and, for many households, the source of huge excitement. Children across the country will be looking forward to a night of mayhem and copious amounts of sweets, while parents brace themselves for a sugar overload and the inevitable meltdown that follows.

But have you ever wondered why it's become the norm to scare ourselves silly on or around the 31st? And when did pumpkins become associated with the scariest night of the year? Here's what you need to know about the history behind the celebration.

The origins of Halloween

Edinburgh, UK - October 31, 2013: After a torchlit procession through Edinburgh to celebrate the pagan festival of Samhuinn, or Samhain, the Beltane Fire Society perform the triumph of winter over summer and celebrate the changing of the seasons before crowds of thousands in the street in front of St Giles Cathedral.
After a torchlit procession through Edinburgh to celebrate the pagan festival of Samhain, Beltane Fire Society performs the triumph of winter over summer, 2013. (Getty Images)

While it has adapted over the years, Halloween is by no means new, originating around 2,000 years ago. The celebration dates back to the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter, held on 1 November.

During this time, the 'souls of the dead' were thought to visit their former homes, prompting living family members to dress up in costumes and light bonfires to deter the spirits, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. This is perhaps where the connection between witches, ghosts and Halloween first started.

In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV formed 'All Saints Day' on 13 May (beginning in Rome), which honours the saints in heaven. But a century later, Pope Gregory III changed it to the familiar date of 1 November, thought to be a Christian version of the pagan religious festival, 'Samhain'.

The night became All Hallows' Eve, which today we refer to as Halloween.

Why do we celebrate Halloween?

October 25, 2021: Halloween decorations and costumes prominently displayed at Sampheng market during the Halloween holidays.
How early did you see Halloween decorations in the shops this year? (Getty Images)

Emerging from a combination of traditions and history, Halloween is thought to have originally been celebrated in Celtic parts of Ireland, the UK and France, before spreading elsewhere in the world.

While the US is now known to take Halloween to the extreme, the first American colonists in New England were actually banned from celebrating it for religious reasons, though it had some traction in the southern colonies. It took off later when Irish and Scottish communities arrived.

By the 1800s, 'encounters' with spirits had evolved into more harmless games and parties, with seasonal treats and costumes.

Today, the celebration has become far more commercial, with supermarket aisles stocked with sweet treats and decorations weeks in advance, scary films aplenty and pop culture costumes galore.

Why do we go trick-or-treating?

Trick-or-treating
Trick-or-treating is inspired by the old practice of 'guising'. (Getty Images)

Trick-or-treating is one of the first things that springs to mind when we think of Halloween. But when exactly did it become normal for children to knock on neighbours' doors and ask for sweets?

It first became popular in the US in the early 20th century, according to Britannica, when the Irish and Scottish brought back the 'Old World' practice of 'guising', which involves dressing up, usually with a mask, and telling a joke or reciting a poem in exchange for a treat (or likely a piece of fruit back then).

Trick-or-treating for sweets took off in the 1950s, and particularly in the 1970s when manufacturers began producing mass-wrapped sweets which were considered 'safe' to take as they couldn't be tampered with.

In 2023, US consumers are expected to spend a record $12.2 billion (£10.047 billion) on Halloween sweets, costumes and decorations, according to the National Retail Federation.

In comparison, Statista estimates that UK consumers will be spending approximately £1.071 billion on Halloween products this year - quite a leap from the £687 million spent last year.

Why do we carve pumpkins?

Happy ethnic family mother, father and son carving pumpkin for Halloween holiday together, preparing for holiday party in kitchen,  having fun while creating Jack-o-lantern
Don't forget to save your pumpkin leftovers for some soup. (Getty Images)

Pumpkin carving actually began with 'jack-o'-lanterns'.

It all started with an Irish myth about 'Stingy Jack', who had a drink with the Devil but didn't want to pay for it, so tricked him into turning into a coin to cover the costs. As punishment, he wasn't allowed into Heaven or Hell.

Left roaming Earth until the end of time, people in Ireland began carving scary demonic faces in turnips to ward off his soul.

Today, pumpkin carving is seen as a more light-hearted, crafting activity and elaborate pumpkin creations are put outside the door to symbolise that the house is 'open' to Trick-or-treaters knocking.

Halloween: Read more

Watch: Farmer turns field into 'pumpkin canon' firing range to inspire Halloween fun