Halloween is celebrated on the night of October 31. People dressed in Halloween costumes go door to door trick-or-treating, visiting haunted houses, attending costume parties, and carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns. In this day and age, Halloween games are for children; however, throughout history it was deadly serious.

Halloween is believed to have begun with the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain. This festival was celebrated at the end of the harvest season, as pagans gathered food supplies for the winter. The Gaels belief that the boundaries which separate the living and the dead merged on October 31. On this date, the dead would cause sickness, damage crops, and generally wreak havoc. Festivals often involved bonfires, and participants wore masks and costumes to either mimic or placate the evil spirits.

The word Halloween comes from All-Hallow-Even, the evening before All Saints Day. European pagans celebrated it with religious festivities. The Roman Catholic Church changed the Christian feast of All Saints Day to November 1, celebrating Halloween and all Saints Day at the same time.

The jack-o’-lantern is a major symbol of Halloween. Lanterns are usually carved from pumpkins, although turnips will do in a pinch. It comes from the legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy old farmer who tricked the devil into climbing up a tree, and carved across in the tree trunk, trapping the devil in the tree. Enraged, the devil cursed Jack, dooming him to walk forever by night.

In North America, children look forward to trick or treating. They dressed in costumes and go door to door begging for candy, miniature chocolate bars, and other goodies. Older children often play pranks like covering a car with toilet paper or ringing the doorbell, then dashing away before the door is answered.

Halloween costumes are usually monstrous and frightening – ghosts, witches, devils, vampires and more. The children wearing these costumes don’t just want candy. Often, they trick or treat to gather money for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. Since it began in 1950, it is estimated that over $119 million in small change has been collected. However, due to safety and administrative concerns, UNICEF discontinued collection in certain areas in 2006.

Halloween parties traditionally have Halloween games. Perhaps the most popular is bobbing for apples – participants attempt to remove an Apple from a basin filled with water using only their teeth. Another common game involves hanging treats from the ceiling, then challenging participants to eat them without using hands.

What would a Halloween party be without ghost stories? For centuries, ghost stories were told on Halloween. In a modern twist, horror films and TV series pick up the Halloween theme, airing these new shows on or before Halloween. Similarly, visiting a haunted house and going for a hay ride are also popular. Instead of a haunted house, some create a “haunted trail”, complete with dark skies, scary forest, and evil characters.

A jack-o’-lantern. Courtesy Wikipedia
Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise portrays a Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832. The young people on the left side play various divination games, while children on the right bob for apples. A couple in the center play “Snap-Apple”, which involves retrieving an apple hanging from a string. Courtesy wikipedia.