Do you know the true origins of Halloween?

By: Abi Luftig
Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

A favorite holiday of American children, Halloween is associated with candy, witches, and other scary frights. But it wasn't always so. Test your knowledge here to see how much you know about the true origins of this spooky night!

Most scholars agree that Halloween stems from traditions from what ancient society?

It is widely accepted as truth that most Halloween traditions can be traced back to ancient Celtic roots, with a touch of Roman influence later on. When most people think of "Celtic," they think of Ireland. However, the Celts were spread throughout the region, with tribes in modern-day Scotland, Wales, England, Brittany, and the Isle of Man.

Halloween is based on which Celtic festival?

Halloween is based on the Celtic festival of Samhain, pronounced sow-ain. Samhain translates to "summer's end."

What are the Halloween colors?

This pair became the Halloween colors because of their associations. Orange is representative of the Fall harvest. Black has long been the color of darkness and death.

What were the Celts celebrating during Samhain?

Samhain marked the end of the fall harvest season and the beginning of the dark winter, the time of year most associated with death in Celtic life.

How many pounds of pumpkin are grown in an average year?

In an average season (not accounting for early frosts and whatnot), America grows roughly 1.5 billion pounds worth of pumpkin every year. The majority of pumpkins are grown in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.

What did the Celts believe happened on Samhain?

Because the winter was considered to be the season of death in Celtic life, Samhain was believed to lower the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead. It was believed that good spirits walked the land and visited their loved ones, but also that evil spirits sought to do harm to the living. Some legends say it was all spirits, some legends say it was only the spirits of those who had died in the preceding years.

Which cinematic murderer strikes on Halloween?

In 1978, horror king John Carpenter unleashed psycho killer Michael Myers in the first film in the "Halloween" franchise. There are now ten "Halloween" films, but Carpenter was only involved in the first movie, a fact many horror film fans cite when criticizing the inferior sequels and reboot.

How did Jack light his lantern?

Legend says that when Jack died, his sinful life on Earth kept him from entering Heaven. The Devil kept his promise to leave Jack alone and did not claim him into Hell. Thus, he was fated to roam the Earth as a spirit for all eternity. As a rare act of decency, the Devil gave Jack an ember from the fires of Hell to light his lantern.

Why did pumpkins eventually replace turnips as lantern bodies?

Turnips are native to Celtic lands, but not to America. When settlers wanted to carry on the Jack-o-lantern tradition, they soon discovered that pumpkins were a better choice.

What disturbing act did community leaders hope to quell by promoting trick or treating?

By the 1950's, vandalism had to be brought under control and by then Halloween was more of a child's celebration. Treats were handed out in order to prevent tricks like lawn rolling at each home.

Why are black cats considered bad luck on Halloween?

In medieval times, it was believed that witches would transform into black cats in order to avoid being caught. Luckily for black cats around the world, this distrust is not universal. Japanese and Scottish people believe black cats bring fortune and good luck.

How long did Samhain last?

The festival of Samhain lasted for three days. There were likely practical reasons for this, but there were symbolic ones as well. The number three was revered among the Celts as the Triskelion, the Triquetra, or The Three Rays. It symbolized the three shapes of the moon (waxing, full, waning) as well as the bond between land, air, and sea.

How much of all candy sold in the U.S. is bought for Halloween?

Roughly 1/4 of all the candy sold in the U.S. annually is sold for Halloween. This might not sound like a lot, but when you consider this takes into account Valentine's Day chocolates, Easter baskets, and candy canes, it's an impressive statistic.

Why did people dance around bonfires?

It was believed that dancing around a bonfire would ward off evil spirits, so bonfires became a Samhain tradition. Over the course of British history, the Celtic tradition of bonfires blended in with the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. This led to the modern-day Bonfire Night.

How did people welcome good spirits?

It wasn't just evil spirits that were believed to return on Samhain. The spirits of the beloved and deceased were believed to visit their families. In order to encourage the visits and help them find their way home, people would leave their front door wide open.

Why did Celts dress up as witches and demons?

The ancient Celts believed that by dressing as witches, ghouls, and demons, they would reduce the risk of being possessed by evil. The costumes were meant to confuse the bad spirits into thinking they had encountered another demon or spirit and would then let them pass.

Lanterns were carved into what vegetable?

The tradition of jack-o-lanterns did not begin with pumpkins, but instead with turnips. Celts would hollow out turnips and use them to carry embers from the Samhain bonfires. They were said to represent a soul trapped in Purgatory and helped to repel evil spirits.

How were faeries viewed in Celtic lore?

While faeries could occasionally be encountered throughout the year, it was believed that they ran free during Samhain. They were thought to be mischevious creatures who rewarded good deeds but took delight in punishing those they believed were in the wrong. One legend says that faeries would disguise themselves as humans and go door to door begging for food. If the homeowner gave them food, the faerie rewarded them. If the homeowner refused, the faerie punished them.

Scottish Celts believed what about babies born at Samhain?

Scottish Celts believed that children born at Samhain were given the gift of an da shealladh, or The Two Sights. In modern English, this gift is often called second sight.

How did the tradition of bobbing for apples begin?

As any fan of history knows, the Roman Empire conquered most of the known world at the time, and Celtic lands were no different. By 43 AD, the Romans had taken over and introduced their festivals, Feralia and Pomona. Feralia was similar to Samhain in that it honored the dead, and Pomona was similar in that it was connected to the harvest. Apples were the symbol of Pomona, and the game of bobbing was created as a way to blend Pomona and Samhain traditions.

Was incorporating Feralia and Pomona the first and only time the Roman Catholic Church adopted and amended Pagan customs in order to convert the locals?

Invading cultures have a long and storied history of "borrowing" established customs in order to win over the lands they invaded. This explains the similarities between Samhain and Halloween, Eostre and Easter, Yule and Christmas. It also led to hybrid forms of worship, like the Catholic-influenced Carribean practice of Santeria.

How did Samhain become Halloween?

Pope Gregory IV wanted to shift the focus of ghostly Samhain to the more sanctioned honoring of souls, so he proclaimed November 1st to be All Hallowed Souls Day and October 31 to be All Hallowed Souls Eve. Over time, this shortened to All Hallowed Eve, and again to Hallows Eve, and eventually to Halloween.

In medieval times, what was given out by families?

In medieval times, All Souls Day (November 1) focused on praying for the souls of deceased relatives. A custom evolved wherein children would go door-to-door asking for a treat called soul cakes (a doughy dessert topped with currants) in exchange for praying for the relatives of those who gave them cakes. This tradition was later assimilated into Halloween celebrations and formed the foundation for trick-or-treating.

From what character did Jack-o-Lanterns get their name?

Irish folk tales recount the antics of the sinful and greedy Stingy Jack, who often made deals with and cheated the Devil himself. One such tale involves Jack tricking the Devil into climbing a tree and then carving crosses in the tree trunk to trap the Devil. In exchange for releasing him, the Devil promised to leave Jack alone forever.

What factor prevented Halloween first catching on in the New World?

Due to its Roman influences and association with Pope Gregory IV's institution of All Soul's Day, Halloween was long considered to be a strictly Catholic holiday. This did not fare well in the Protestant-majority colonies, especially Massachusetts which had a history of sentencing people to death for celebrating any religious holiday, including Christmas!

What brought Halloween to America?

The devastating potato famine in 1846 caused a mass exodus from Ireland and many of those immigrants found their way to American shores. They brought their Old World customs with them, including what was now referred to as Halloween.

During what decade did the first official Halloween take place in America?

In the early 20th Century, communities were coming together to celebrate secular and community-focused fall festivals that incorporated the Halloween traditions of the Irish immigrants. Eventually, the holiday became legitimate, with the first official Halloween being celebrated in Anoka, Minnesota, in 1921.

Which generation essentially created classroom Halloween parties?

Prior to the 1950s Baby Boom, Halloween parties were held in town civic and community centers. However, the population increase caused by the Boom led to Halloween parties being held in the classroom or home, where high attendance was not an issue.

How long did the festival of Samhain last?

The festival, as was the case with many Celtic festivals, lasted 3 days. Three was a sacred number to the Celts. It represented the passage of time (the past, the present, and the future), the phases of the moon (waxing, full, and waning) and the earth itself (land, sea, and air). The reverence of the number 3 is represented by the triskelion, or as fans of Charmed might recognize it, the triquetra.

Halloween is now a major commercial success. Where does it rank in the list of commerical holidays?

Halloween is the second biggest commercial holiday in America, coming in behind Christmas but beating out Valentine's Day. Estimates indicate that the nation spends $8.4 billion dollars on candy, costumes, and decorations.

What percentage of Americans handed out candy to trick or treaters in 2015?

The National Retail Federation conducted a survey in 2015 about Halloween participation. Of those who answered the survey, 70% handed out candy, 47% carved a pumpkin, 65% to 70% of 18 to 40-year-old adults wore a costume, 36% visited a haunted house, 52% threw or attended a party and 20% dress up their pets.

What do families in the Czech Republic leave out on Halloween night?

Many cultures around the world have adopted to keep the more supernatural aspects of Halloween alive. In Czech tradition, an empty chair for each lost family member is placed by the fireplace. They also set out chairs for the living to sit in.

What do German people hide on Halloween?

German tradition says that people should hide their knives on Halloween night. They do this to prevent harm either to visiting spirits or from them.

What is the fear of Halloween?

The fear of Halloween harkens back the root of the spooky holiday with its proper name, Samhainophobia. FearOf.net ranks Samhainophobia 90th in its list of the 100 most common phobias. The number one fear is arachnophobia (fear of spiders).

What does it mean to see a spider on Halloween?

Some superstitions state that if you see a spider on Halloween, it means the spirit of a deceased loved one is watching over you. Spiders are associated with both life and death, as the antidote to their deadly venom is made from the venom itself.

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