What Is Halloween?

As observed today, Halloween is a secular holiday which takes place on October 31, combining vestiges of traditional harvest festival celebrations with customs more peculiar to the occasion such as wearing costumes and disguises, trick-or-treating, pranksterism, and decorations based on imagery of death and the supernatural.

Though it was regarded up until the last few decades of the 20th century as primarily a holiday for children, in more recent years activities such as mask wearing, costume parties, themed decorations, and even trick-or-treating have grown popular with adults as well, making Halloween a sportive occasion for both young and old.

Harvest Festivals

Harvest festivals originated with the ancients, who made sacrificial offerings to the gods at an appointed time each autumn to show their gratitude for a successful harvest and sustenance for another year. The ensuing feast, part ritual and part seasonal blow-out, usually culminated in a communal banquet with music, dancing, and harvest decorations.

Traditionally, harvest festivals were held on or about the arrival of the "harvest moon," the full moon occurring closest to the autumnal equinox in what is now the month of September. Samhain, the Celtic harvest festival thought to be the forerunner of Halloween, was one exception to that rule, taking place on the day following what the Celts regarded as the last day of summer, October 31.

What Does the Name 'Halloween' Mean?

The name Halloween (sometimes spelled Hallowe'en) is a contraction of "All Hallows Even." The word hallow, which means "to make holy" or "to revere as holy," was once also used as a noun to mean "holy place" or "holy person" -- e.g., a saint. Thus, in Catholic liturgy October 31 is designated All Hallows Eve because it's the day before the Festival of All Saints, or All Saints Day. It may seem strange that Halloween, a secular celebration associated with goblins, ghosts, and witches, got its name from a holy day devoted to Christian martyrs. That came about because long before the Church consecrated November 1 as All Saints Day it was a pagan observance marking the end of summer -- a time, it was believed, when the dead wandered the earth and supernatural forces reigned. The Church evidently hoped to replace these lingering beliefs with ones more suitable to Christian teachings, but as is plain to see the effort wasn't entirely successful.

Who knew?



  1. Mary Marvella // October 6, 2009 at 12:26 PM  

    Cool information, Mary R. It's so easy to forget the origin of our holidays.

  2. Mona Risk // October 6, 2009 at 2:27 PM  

    Mary, what a wonderful account of Halloween's origin. I learned so much from your post. I always celebrate All Saints' Day, especially that my kids went to a school by that name and on November 2nd we celebrate All Souls' Day, the feast of the Dead, and on November 3rd I pray for my Dad. It's the anniversay of his death.

  3. Patrice // October 6, 2009 at 2:33 PM  

    And we all thought it was about getting the most candy! Shucks.
    Thanks for the info, Mary, and it is a very special day for children.

  4. Beth Trissel // October 6, 2009 at 3:01 PM  

    How very interesting! I enjoyed this.

  5. Mary Ricksen // October 6, 2009 at 4:37 PM  

    Thanks for commenting my faithful friends!
    MM you know how hard it was to put that ju... I mean beautiful graphics in a blog? Well at least for a techno dummie like me.
    Candy tooo Patrice!!
    All Saint's Day School, that sounds very like me, Christ The King school, mean ole nuns too.

  6. Joanne // October 6, 2009 at 6:25 PM  

    Who knew, indeed? Thanks Mary for the informative post.

  7. Scarlet Pumpernickel // October 6, 2009 at 8:03 PM  

    Mary, great post. Very informative and interesting. Cool graphic and I wish I knew how to put something like that on the blog! You have more skill than you give yourself credit for, girl

  8. Mary Marvella // October 7, 2009 at 12:29 AM  

    You did a fab job, Mary R.

  9. Margaret Tanner // October 7, 2009 at 5:22 AM  

    Hi Mary,
    Very interesting post. We don't really celebrate Halloween here in Australia, but I didn't realise it was religious based. Although I knew about All Saint's Day, I always acquainted Halloween with witches, goblins and huge pumpkins.

  10. Judy // October 7, 2009 at 9:59 AM  

    Thanks for the info on Halloween. It's such a fun holiday for children but it's nice to know what its origin is. I still like the idea of treats just for saying "Trick or Treat"! LOL