AskDefine | Define Halloween

Dictionary Definition

Hallowe'en n : the evening before All Saints' Day; often devoted to pranks played by young people [syn: Halloween, Allhallows Eve]Halloween n : the evening before All Saints' Day; often devoted to pranks played by young people [syn: Hallowe'en, Allhallows Eve]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The eve of All Hallows' Day; 31st October; celebrated (mostly in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Ireland,) by children going door-to-door in costume and demanding candy with menaces.

Extensive Definition

Halloween, or Hallowe'en, is a holiday celebrated on the night of October 31. Halloween activities include trick-or-treating, ghost tours, bonfires, costume parties, visiting "haunted houses" and carving jack-o-lanterns. Irish immigrants carried versions of the tradition to North America in the nineteenth century. Other western countries embraced the holiday in the late twentieth century. Halloween is celebrated in several countries of the Western world, most commonly in Ireland, the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and occasionally in parts of Australia and New Zealand.


The modern holiday of Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (; from the Old Irish ). The festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, and is sometimes erroneously regarded as the "Celtic New Year". Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, where the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them.

History of name

The term Halloween (and its alternative rendering Hallowe'en) is shortened from All-hallow-even, as it is the eve of "All Hallows' Day", which is now also known as All Saints' Day. It was a day of religious festivities in various northern European Pagan traditions, until Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV moved the old Christian feast of All Saints' Day from May 13 (which had itself been the date of a pagan holiday, the Feast of the Lemures) to November 1. In the ninth century, the Church measured the day as starting at sunset, in accordance with the Florentine calendar. Although All Saints' Day is now considered to occur one day after Halloween, the two holidays were, at that time, celebrated on the same day. Liturgically, the Church traditionally celebrated that day as the Vigil of All Saints, and, until 1970, a day of fasting as well. Like other vigils, it was celebrated on the previous day if it fell on a Sunday, although secular celebrations of the holiday remained on the 31st. The Vigil was suppressed in 1955, but was later restored in the post-Vatican II calendar.


The carved pumpkin, lit by a candle inside, is one of Halloween's most prominent symbols. These lanterns are usually carved from a turnip or swede (or more uncommonly a mangelwurzel). The jack-o'-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking old farmer. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into the tree trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack, condemning him to forever wander the earth at night. This story has been passed down through generations of Irish families. The carving of pumpkins is associated with Halloween in North America, where pumpkins were readily available and much larger, making them easier to carve than turnips. Many families that celebrate Halloween carve a pumpkin into a frightening or comical face and place it on their home's doorstep after dark. In America the tradition of carving pumpkins is known to have preceded the Great Famine period of Irish immigration. The tradition of carving vegetable lanterns may have been brought over by the Scottish or English--documentation is unavailable to establish when or by whom. The carved pumpkin was originally associated with harvest time in general in America and did not become specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late 19th century.
The imagery surrounding Halloween is largely an amalgamation of the Halloween season itself, nearly a century of work from American filmmakers and graphic artists, and a rather commercialized take on the dark and mysterious. Halloween imagery tends to involve death, magic, or mythical monsters. Traditional characters include ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, bats, owls, crows, vultures, pumpkinmen, black cats, spiders, goblins, zombies, mummies, skeletons, and demons.
Particularly in America, symbolism is inspired by classic horror films, which contain fictional figures like Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and The Mummy. Elements of the autumn season, such as pumpkins and scarecrows, are also prevalent. Homes are often decorated with these types of symbols around Halloween.
Black and orange are the traditional colours of Halloween.

Trick-or-treating and guising

United States and Canada

The main event for children of modern Halloween in the United States and Canada is trick-or-treating, in which children disguise themselves in costumes and go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, ringing each doorbell and yelling "trick or treat!" to solicit a gift of candy or similar items. Although the practice resembles the older tradition of "souling" in Ireland and Scotland, ritual begging on Halloween does not appear in English-speaking North America until the 20th century, and may have developed independently. Upon receiving trick-or-treaters, the house occupants (who might also be in costume) often hand out small candies, miniature chocolate bars, nuts, loose change, soda pop, stickers, or even crayons and pencils. Some homes will use sound effects and fog machines to help establish an eerie atmosphere. Other less scary house decoration themes might be used to entertain younger visitors. Children can often accumulate many treats on Halloween night, filling up entire pillow cases, pumpkin-shaped buckets, shopping bags, or large plastic containers. Some teenagers in Canada and the States occasionally play pranks on unsuspecting victims like throwing toilet paper over someone's house and yard, ding-dong-ditch (A game where the prankster knocks on a door and runs away before someone answers the door), and stealing young trick-or-treaters' candy. Also, they may "egg" peoples houses, which usually is throwing eggs, but some people use apples, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables on the roof of someone's house. Another way some teens may amuse themselves is by finding a house with candy they like and going back to it over and over with different masks on. Large parties are commonly held on Halloween in which games like bobbing for apples and spooky story telling are common.


All over Ireland, huge bonfires are lit. Young children in disguise are warmly received by their neighbors with gifts of "fruit, miniature chocolate bars, loose change, peanuts and of course sweets" for the "Halloween Party", whilst their older male siblings play innocent pranks on bewildered victims. Some homes will put up decorations including Halloween lights. Children have the week off from school for Halloween, and it is common for teenagers and for college students to spend weeknights out and about with friends, pranking and causing mischief, if not trick-or-treating themselves, and perhaps even "egging" [throwing eggs at] houses, drinking alcohol, throwing bangers and setting off fireworks.


In Lebanon a similar holiday is celebrated on the eve of Saint Barbara's Day (December 4). Children disguised in costumes also go trick-or-treating to invoke the saint's wandering in the mountains.


In Scotland, children are known as "guisers", though this term is now going into decline. In the past, the children going guising would dress in various (often home-made) costumes and disguises: hence (dis)'guisers'. The most popular costumes were skeletons, witches and various forms of scary fiends, complete with papier-mâché masks, though nurses' or cowboys' outfits were also given a rather incongruous outing. They would then form small bands of mixed-age children, the older ones trailing their younger siblings behind them, and venture out into the darkness each with their lantern. Until at least the 1970s the traditional Halloween light carried by Scottish children was not the now ubiquitous pumpkin but a 'tumshie lantern' made, as with a pumpkin, by hollowing out a very large swede/yellow turnip ("tumshie" in the West of Scotland dialect of Scots) and carving a scary face, through which shone the candle inside. Then, each carrying their tumshie lantern, they would knock on all the neighbours' doors where the eldest or boldest of the group would ask, "Are ye wantin' any guisers?". If the answer was yes, the children would be invited inside where the grown-ups would pretend to try to guess the identity of each guiser, who then had to impress the company with a song, poem, trick, joke or dance—known as their 'party piece'—in order to earn treats. Today, however, they simply say "trick or treat" in order to earn sweets. Traditionally, nuts, oranges, apples and dried fruit as well as "sweeties" were offered, though children might earn a small amount of cash, usually no more than 50p. In some houses the neighbours would have prepared a pail or basin filled with apples ready for the game of 'dookin' for apples'. The children had to 'dook' (Scots) their faces into the water with their hands behind their backs to try to pick up an apple by biting into it.

England and Wales

In England and Wales, trick-or-treating does occur, although the practice is regarded by some as a nuisance or even a menacing form of begging. In some areas, households have started to put decorations on the front door to indicate that trick-or-treaters are welcome, the idea being that trick-or-treaters will avoid a house not participating in the custom. Tricks currently play a less prominent role, though Halloween night is often marked by vandalism such as soaping windows, egging houses or stringing toilet paper through trees.
In Welsh, Halloween is known as Nos Galan Gaeaf (the beginning of the new year). Spirits are said to walk around and a "white lady" ghost is sometimes said to appear. Bonfires are lit on hillsides to mark the night.


Halloween costumes are traditionally those of monsters such as vampires, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils. Costumes are also based on themes other than traditional horror, such as those of characters from television shows, movies and other pop culture icons.

Costume sales

BIGresearch conducted a survey for the National Retail Federation in the United States and found that 53.3% of consumers planned to buy a costume for Halloween 2005, spending $38.11 on average (up 10 dollars from the year before). They were also expected to spend $4.96 billion in 2006, up significantly from just $3.3 billion the previous year.


"'Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF" has become a common sight during Halloween in North America. Started as a local event in a Philadelphia suburb in 1950, and expanded nationally in 1952, the program involves the distribution of small boxes by schools (or in modern times, corporate sponsors like Hallmark at their licensed stores) to trick-or-treaters, in which they can solicit small change donations from the houses they visit. It is estimated that children have collected more than $119 million (US) for UNICEF since its inception. In 2006, UNICEF discontinued their Halloween collection boxes in parts of the world, citing safety and administrative concerns.

Games and other activities

Because the holiday comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest, candy apples (also known as toffee, taffy or caramel apples) are a common Halloween treat made by rolling whole apples in a sticky sugar syrup, and sometimes rolling them in nuts. At one time, candy apples were commonly given to children, but the practice rapidly waned in the wake of widespread rumors that some individuals were embedding items like pins and razor blades in the apples. While there is evidence of such incidents, they are quite rare and have never resulted in serious injury. Nonetheless, many parents assumed that such heinous practices were rampant; at the peak of the hysteria, some hospitals offered free x-rays of children's Halloween hauls in order to find evidence of tampering. Virtually all of the few known candy poisoning incidents involved parents who poisoned their own children's candy, while there have been occasional reports of children putting needles in their own (and other children's) candy in a mere bid for attention. One custom which persists in modern-day day Ireland is the baking (or more often nowadays the purchase) of a barmbrack (Irish "báirín breac"), which is a light fruit cake into which a plain ring is placed before baking. It is said that those who get a ring will find their true love in the ensuing year. See also king cake. Other foods associated with the holiday:

Around the world

New York City hosts the United States' largest Halloween celebration, known as The Village Halloween Parade. Started by Greenwich Village mask maker Ralph Lee in 1973, the evening parade now attracts over two million spectators and participants, as well as roughly four million television viewers annually. It is the largest participatory parade in the country if not the world, encouraging spectators to march in the parade as well.
Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book on collective joy mentions this as an example of how Halloween is transitioning from a children's holiday to an adult holiday and compares it to Mardi Gras.
In many towns and cities, trick-or-treaters are welcomed by lit porch lights and jack-o'-lanterns. In some large and/or crime ridden areas, however, trick-or-treating is discouraged, or refocused to staged trick-or-treating events within nearby shopping malls, in order to prevent potential acts of violence against trick-or-treaters. Even where crime is not an issue, many American towns have designated specific hours for trick-or-treating, e.g., 5-7 pm or 5-8 pm, to discourage late-night trick-or-treating.
Those living in the country may hold Halloween parties, often with bonfires, with the celebrants passing between them. The parties usually involve traditional games (like snipe hunting, bobbing for apples, or searching for candy in a similar manner to Easter egg hunting), haunted hayrides (often accompanied by scary stories, and costumed people hiding in the dark to jump out and scare the riders), and treats (usually a bag of candy and/or homemade treats). Scary movies may also be viewed. Normally, the children are picked up by their parents at predetermined times. However, it is not uncommon for such parties to include sleepovers.
Trick-or-treating may often end by early evening, but the nightlife thrives in many urban areas. Halloween costume parties provide an opportunity for adults to gather and socialize. Urban bars are frequented by people wearing Halloween masks and risqué costumes. Many bars and restaurants hold costume contests to attract customers to their establishments. Haunted houses are also popular in some areas.


In Mexico, Halloween has been celebrated during the last 40 years where the celebrations have been influenced by the American traditions, such as the costuming of children who visit the houses of their neighbourhood in search of candy. Though the "trick-or-treat" motif is used, tricks are not generally played on residents not providing candy. Older crowds of preteens, teenagers and adults will sometimes organize Halloween-themed parties, which might be scheduled on the nearest available weekend. Usually kids stop by at peoples' houses, knock on their door or the ring the bell and say "¡Noche de Brujas , Halloween!" ('Witches' Night-- Halloween!').
Halloween in Mexico begins three days of consecutive holidays, as it is followed by All Saints' Day, which also marks the beginning of the two day celebration of the Day of the Dead or the Día de los Muertos. This might account for the initial explanations of the holiday having a traditional Mexican-Catholic slant.

Australia and New Zealand

In the southern hemisphere, spring is in full swing by October 31, and the days are rapidly growing longer and brighter. This does not mesh well with the traditional Celtic spirit of Halloween, which relies on an atmosphere of the encroaching darkness of winter. However, Halloween has recently gained a large amount of recognition in Australia and to a moderate extent New Zealand, largely due to American media influences, with many young families in Australia embracing the tradition. In 2006, costume shops reported a rise in sales on Halloween-themed costumes, on October 31, 2006 and have reported a steady increase on October 31, 2007. On Halloween night, horror films and horror-themed TV episodes are traditionally aired, and currently, Halloween private parties are more commonly held than actual "trick-or-treating", however both are still observed. Trick or treating is generally only done in the trick-or-treater's neighbourhood.


Halloween is largely uncelebrated in the Caribbean. However, like Australia and New Zealand, the event is not unheard of in the Caribbean and is seeing some increase in popularity.
In some parts of the British West Indies, there are celebrations commemorating Guy Fawkes Night that occur around the time of Halloween. The celebrations include using firecrackers, blowing bamboo joints and similar activities. And in other island they celebrate All Saints'. On this evening they go to the cemetery to sing, and light candles on the tomb of their loved ones.
On the island of Bonaire, the children of a town typically gather to trick-or-treat for sweets among the town shops (instead of people's homes, as in other countries).

The Netherlands

Halloween has become increasingly popular in The Netherlands since the early 1990s. From early October, stores are full of merchandising related to the popular Halloween themes. Students and little children dress up on Halloween for parties and small parades. Trick-or-treating is highly uncommon, also because this directly interferes with the Dutch tradition of celebrating St. Martin's Day. On the 11 November, Dutch children ring doorbells hoping to receive a small treat in return for singing a short song dedicated to St. Martin.


Halloween had never been celebrated in Malta until recently, with its popularity increasing thanks to the many costume parties, usually for teenagers and young adults, being organized on Halloween night.

People's Republic of China

There is no Halloween in Chinese culture, but there is a similar Chinese holiday called Ghost Festival. The Ghost Festival is a traditional Chinese festival and holiday, which is celebrated by Chinese people in many countries. In the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 14th night of the seventh lunar month, which is called Ghost Day. In Chinese tradition, the ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower world.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, does celebrate Halloween every year unlike the Mainland.


In Sweden Halloween is celebrated the same day the Church of Sweden celebrates All Saints day, the first saturday in November. This is due to a misunderstanding when the retail business organizations introduced Halloween in the mid-1990s. Christians and christian organizations do not like this connection and very few Swedes are aware that Halloween in the English-speaking countries is a non-Christian holiday celebrated October 31.

Other regions

In other regions such as Japan and Germany, Halloween has become popular in the context of American pop culture. Some Christians do not appreciate the resultant de-emphasis of the more spiritual aspects of All Hallows Eve and Reformation Day, respectively, or of regional festivals occurring around the same time (such as St Martin's Day). Business has a natural tendency to capitalize on the holiday season's more commercial aspects, such as the sale of decorations and costumes.

Religious perspectives

In North America, Christian attitudes towards Halloween are quite diverse. The fact that All Saints Day and Halloween occur on two consecutive days has left some Christians uncertain of how they should treat this holiday. In the Anglican Church, some dioceses have chosen to emphasize the Christian traditions of All Saints Day, while some Protestants celebrate the holiday as Reformation Day, a day of remembrance and prayers for unity. Celtic Christians may have Samhain services that focus on the cultural aspects of the holiday, in the belief that many ancient Celtic customs are "compatible with the new Christian religion. Christianity embraced the Celtic notions of family, community, the bond among all people, and respect for the dead. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwine in a gallimaufry (hodgepodge) of celebrations from October 31 through November 5, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery."
Many Christians ascribe no negative significance to Halloween, treating it as a purely secular holiday devoted to celebrating “imaginary spooks” and handing out candy. Halloween celebrations are common among Roman Catholic parochial schools throughout North America and in Ireland. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church sees Halloween as having a Christian connection. Father Gabriele Amorth, a Vatican-appointed exorcist in Rome, has said, "[I]f English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that." Most Christians hold the view that the tradition is far from being "satanic" in origin or practice and that it holds no threat to the spiritual lives of children: being taught about death and mortality, and the ways of the Celtic ancestors actually being a valuable life lesson and a part of many of their parishioners' heritage. Other Christians, primarily of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist variety, are concerned about Halloween, and reject the holiday because they believe it trivializes (and celebrates) “the occult” and what they perceive as evil. A response among some fundamentalists in recent years has been the use of Hell houses or themed pamphlets (such as those of Jack T. Chick) which attempt to make use of Halloween as an opportunity for evangelism. Some consider Halloween to be completely incompatible with the Christian faith due to its origin as a Pagan "festival of the dead." In more recent years, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has organised a "Saint Fest" on the holiday. Some Christian churches offer a fall or harvest festival-themed alternative to Halloween.
Some Wiccans feel that the tradition is offensive to "real witches" for promoting stereotypical caricatures of "wicked witches". However, other Neopagans, perhaps most of them, see it as a harmless holiday in which some of the old traditions are celebrated by the mainstream culture, albeit in a different manner.


Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree features the holiday prominently. Halloween is frequently mentioned as an important date in the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling, whose central themes are wizardry and magic. In Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen, several pivotal events occur on Halloween night, including the death of the original 'Nite-Owl'. Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the character of the Headless Horseman are often linked to the holiday in the public mindset due to later adaptations (though Halloween is not actually mentioned in the original work).
Films in which Halloween plays a significant role include adaptations of the above works, plus the Halloween film series, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Halloween That Almost Wasn't, Monster House, Donnie Darko, Hellboy, and Hocus Pocus.
Numerous Halloween television specials have been broadcast, notably It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and the annual Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" episodes.


  • Diane C. Arkins, Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear, Pelican Publishing Company (2000). 96 pages. ISBN 1-56554-712-8
  • Diane C. Arkins, Halloween Merrymaking: An Illustrated Celebration Of Fun, Food, And Frolics From Halloweens Past, Pelican Publishing Company (2004). 112 pages. ISBN 1-58980-113-X
  • Lesley Bannatyne, Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, Facts on File (1990, Pelican Publishing Company, 1998). 180 pages. ISBN 1-56554-346-7
  • Lesley Bannatyne, A Halloween Reader. Stories, Poems and Plays from Halloweens Past, Pelican Publishing Company (2004). 272 pages. ISBN 1-58980-176-8
  • Phyllis Galembo, Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (2002). 128 pages. ISBN 0-8109-3291-1
  • Lint Hatcher, The Magic Eightball Test: A Christian Defense of Halloween and All Things Spooky, (2006). ISBN 978-1847287564
  • Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford Paperbacks (2001). 560 pages. ISBN 0-19-285448-8
  • Jean Markale, The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark Half of the Year (translation of Halloween, histoire et traditions), Inner Traditions (2001). 160 pages. ISBN 0-89281-900-6
  • Lisa Morton, The Halloween Encyclopedia, McFarland & Company (2003). 240 pages. ISBN 0-7864-1524-X
  • Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press (2002). 198 pages. ISBN 0-19-514691-3
  • Jack Santino (ed.), Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, University of Tennessee Press (1994). 280 pages. ISBN 0-87049-813-4
  • David J. Skal, Death Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, Bloomsbury USA (2003). 224 pages. ISBN 1-58234-305-5
  • Ben Truwe, The Halloween Catalog Collection. Portland, Oregon: Talky Tina Press (2003). ISBN 0-9703448-5-6.
Halloween in Afrikaans: Halloween
Halloween in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Ealra Hālgena Ǣfen
Halloween in Arabic: هالويين
Halloween in Bulgarian: Хелоуин
Halloween in Catalan: Halloween
Halloween in Czech: Halloween
Halloween in Welsh: Gŵyl Calan Gaeaf
Halloween in Danish: Allehelgensaften
Halloween in German: Halloween
Halloween in Estonian: Halloween
Halloween in Spanish: Halloween
Halloween in Esperanto: Halloween
Halloween in Basque: Halloween
Halloween in Persian: هالووین
Halloween in French: Halloween
Halloween in Irish: Oíche Shamhna
Halloween in Galician: Halloween
Halloween in Korean: 할로윈
Halloween in Croatian: Noć vještica
Halloween in Indonesian: Halloween
Halloween in Icelandic: Hrekkjavaka
Halloween in Italian: Halloween
Halloween in Hebrew: ליל כל הקדושים
Halloween in Latin: Pervigilium Omnium Sanctorum
Halloween in Latvian: Visu svēto diena
Halloween in Luxembourgish: Halloween
Halloween in Lithuanian: Helovinas
Halloween in Limburgan: Halloween
Halloween in Lojban: xalo,uin
Halloween in Hungarian: Halloween
Halloween in Malay (macrolanguage): Halloween
Halloween in Dutch: Halloween
Halloween in Japanese: ハロウィン
Halloween in Norwegian: Halloween
Halloween in Narom: Halloween
Halloween in Polish: Halloween
Halloween in Portuguese: Dia das bruxas
Halloween in Quechua: Halloween
Halloween in Russian: Хеллоуин
Halloween in Scots: Hallae een
Halloween in Simple English: Halloween
Halloween in Slovak: Halloween
Halloween in Serbian: Ноћ вештица
Halloween in Finnish: Halloween
Halloween in Swedish: Halloween
Halloween in Tamil: ஹாலோவீன்
Halloween in Thai: วันฮาโลวีน
Halloween in Vietnamese: Halloween
Halloween in Tajik: Хеллоуин
Halloween in Turkish: Cadılar Bayramı
Halloween in Ukrainian: Хелловін
Halloween in Vlaams: Halloween
Halloween in Contenese: 萬聖夜
Halloween in Chinese: 萬聖夜
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