A Look into the Heart of Halloween

Part of The Humanities Exchange series on holidays, this publication highlights the holiday of Halloween.

Halloween is one of the oldest holidays that is still celebrated today, and its origins, myths and history make it especially fascinating.

Viewed by some as a time for fun, putting on costumes, trick-or-treating, and having theme parties, Halloween also embraces a world of superstitions, ghosts, goblins and evil spirits that are to be avoided!

There are many versions of the origins and old customs of Halloween, and while different cultures celebrate Halloween in different ways, most of the  traditional Halloween practices have remained the same.

There is still some disagreement over Halloween’s origins, but it is generally believed that the celebration can be traced back over 2000 years to the Druids, and the Celtic culture in Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe. Its Roots lay in the feast of Samhain, recognized annually to honor the dead on October 31st.

The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes at this time, and the autumn festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats, fairies and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about the streets and villages at night.

In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes.

In Ireland especially, people thought that ghosts and spirits roamed after dark on Halloween. They lit candles or lanterns to keep the spirits away, and if they had to go outside, they wore costumes and masks to frighten the spirits or to keep from being recognized by the unearthly

Halloween was thought to be a night when mischievous and evil spirits roamed, and the mischievous spirits could play tricks on the living—so it was advantageous to “hide” from them by wearing costumes. Masks and costumes were worn to either scare away the ghosts or to keep from being recognized by them.

In Mexico, the Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a holiday that celebrates and honors friend and family members who have passed away. The Day of the Dead is said to be the time that heaven’s gates are opened and the spirits of loved ones are able to reunite with their friends and families.


Today Halloween has gone from an informal affair to a holiday celebrated by millions of people. In the US, as much as $6 billion is spent annually on Halloween merchandise, and Halloween commercials fill the airwaves as early as September.

Halloween has many food traditions, some with ancient roots.  Pumpkins are carved, kids bob for apples, and candy is consumed in massive quantities – a lot of candy.   In fact, the amount of candy eaten on Halloween has long surpassed the amount eaten at Christmas and Valentine’s Day. In 2011, $2.3 billion was spent on Halloween candy – that is a lot of sugar!

The Samhain practice of fortunetelling carried over into America with activities like bobbing for apples, where unmarried young adults would take turns trying to bite an apple, either hanging from a tree or floating in water, without the use of their hands. The first person to bite into an apple would supposedly be the next to marry. Young women would also peel apples onto the ground in hopes of seeing their future husband’s name spelled out in the peels.


The book – Into the Heart of Halloween — covers all these topics and more.  Chapters include:

  • Worldwide Traditions
  • Origins in Samhain
  • Growth in North America
  • Customs – trick or treating, jack-o-lanterns,
  • Mexico: Day of the Dead
  • Festivals Around the World
  • A world of superstitions, ghosts, goblins and evil spirits
  • Witches, Magic and Divination
  • Foods of Halloween
  • Children’s Rhymes and Songs