Halloween, also known as "All Hallows’ Eve," is a holiday celebrated annually on October 31st. Halloween is massively popular in the United States, where consumers were expected to spend more than US$10 billion on costumes, decorations, treats, and other Halloween-themed expenses in 2021. That said, Halloween has never been an exclusively American holiday. In fact, Halloween originated in Europe and is celebrated today by a rapidly increasing number of people of many people of different religious backgrounds and in countries all over the world.
However, the specific form the holiday takes varies greatly from one country to the next. For instance, while Halloween in the U.S. typically centers around costumes of any type and trick-or-treating, many other countries stick to scary costumes and downplay the trick-or-treating aspect of the holiday. Halloween is also often intertwined with other memorial holidays such as All Souls' Day and Día de Los Muertos, which take place during the same time frame.
A Brief History of Halloween
Halloween is one of the world's oldest holidays. As is arguably befitting a holiday that is themed around the supernatural, the origin of Halloween is slightly mysterious. Most scholars believe that the roots of Halloween extend back to a 2000-year-old Celtic celebration known as Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win” in the original Gaelic), in which people living in what is now Ireland (and some of northern France and the U.K.) would light fires and celebrate the recent harvest on or around October 31 (sources differ as to the precise day and length of the festival).
The Celts also believed that the barrier between the physical world and the spirit world was easily breached during this time, enabling the dead to return to the Earth. In observance of this belief, celebrants would often try to communicate with the souls of passed loved ones, leave food out for spiritual visitors, and dress in costumes to scare off any fairies that might wish to kidnap them. During the Middle Ages, the practice of carving Jack O'Lanterns—which were originally turnips, not pumpkins—became another Samhain tradition.
However, this is not the end of the Halloween origin story. In fact, some scholars argue that it's not the story at all. The early Catholic church established its own holiday in the 7th century, designating November 1st as All Saints' Day in memory of all the saints. Also called All-Hallows, and Allhallowmas, it was later joined by All Souls' Day on November 2nd, which commemorated all deceased people who were not saints. During these celebrations, less-wealthy worshippers in England and Ireland developed the practice of "souling," in which they would go door-to-door in wealthy neighborhoods and receive "soul cakes" in exchange for prayers for their donors' deceased loved ones. Scholars are split as to whether trick-or-treating evolved from souling or from the Samhain-related practice of "guising," also known as "galoshing."
Over the centuries, the night before All-Hallows came to be known as All-Hallows Eve, which later morphed into Halloween. While both All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day remain official Catholic holidays and are still widely celebrated in many countries, Halloween took on a life of its own as a secular holiday. Because of this clear connection to the Catholic church (and the fact that the historical details of Samhain are both sparse and often disputed), some scholars maintain that Halloween's origins are Christian rather than pagan. Whatever its true origin, Halloween has become a truly global holiday and continues to spread all over the world—in one form or another.
Countries that Celebrate Halloween
Gaining in popularity:
- Australia — houses hang an orange balloon outside to signal their participation
- Czech Republic
- Dominican Republic
- Hong Kong (China SAR)
- Japan - largely enjoyed by adults
- New Zealand
- Russia — unwelcomed by many
- Rwanda — unwelcomed by many
- South Korea
- Taiwan (Rep. of China)
- United Arab Emirates
Celebrated alongside traditional holidays:
- Brazil — overshadowed by Dia das Bruxas (Witch’s Day) and Saci Day
- China — overshadowed by traditional days of the dead
- Colombia — celebrated alongside Dia de los Muertos
- England (U.K.) — celebrated alongside Guy Fawkes Day on Nov 5
- Germany — overshadowed by St. Martin's Day on Nov 11
- Guatemala — celebrated alongside Dia de los Muertos and in some regions the Festival de Barriletes Gigantes on Nov 1, in which people fly giant kites in honor of loved ones
- Ireland — celebrated alongside Samhain
- Netherlands — overshadowed by St. Martin's Day on Nov 11
- Nicaragua — overshadowed by Los Agüizotes
- Peru — celebrated as El Día de las Brujas alongside El Día de la Canción Criolla, Día de los Difuntos, and All Saints’ Day
- Philippines — overshadowed by Undás, in which families light candles, clean cemeteries, and feast together
- Scotland (U.K.) — celebrated alongside Samhain
- Spain — overshadowed by Todos Los Santos (All Saints' Day)
Halloween in the United States
Halloween has become extremely popular in the United States, where it is celebrated on October 31 and is beloved by both children and adults. Favorite Halloween activities in the U.S. include dressing in costumes; carving pumpkins to make jack-o-lanterns; and (especially for children) trick-or-treating, which involves going door to door, knocking and calling out “trick or treat,” and receiving candy in return. Spooky events such as telling horror stories and going to horror movies or "haunted house" attractions are also very popular. Halloween also has its own traditional treats, including caramel-covered apples, candy corn, and pumpkin-flavored foods. Canada and Ireland both have similar traditions.
Dia de Los Muertos and other Halloween-adjacent holidays and customs
While many countries have a fall-themed holiday that honors the dead, the particular customs, traditions, and names of those holidays vary widely from one country to the next. People in Mexico celebrate Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, on November 1st and 2nd (and in some regions, also October 31 or November 6). Many families construct an altar in their homes to honor their late family members and make a feast with their favorite dishes for their spirits to enjoy. The festival is often recognized by the presence of calaveras, which are representations of human skulls decorated with colorful, ornate patterns and often flowers. Calaveras are often molded out of sugar and given to children as treats, and celebrants may also paint their own faces to resemble calaveras.
Although it descended from the more solemn holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, Día de Los Muertos is a festive, happy, celebratory holiday. It is also celebrated in various forms in many other Latin American countries, including Peru, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Whether Día de Los Muertos and similar days of the dead should be considered variations of Halloween (whose Catholic roots they share) or entirely separate-but-parallel holidays is a subject of some debate. For the purposes of this page, holidays descended from All Saints' Day are considered related forms, but similarly themed holidays that have their own unique origin, such as Haiti's voodoo-inspired Fete Gede, are not.
The rise of Halloween around the world
In many countries, Halloween has increased substantially in popularity within the last 30 years. For example, the holiday is catching on in Australia, where houses hang an orange balloon outside to signal they have lollipops for trick-or-treaters. Halloween is also gaining traction in France, Greece, Poland, Sweden, Italy, and other countries. In many countries, Halloween has been met with initial resistance from people who regard it as either an overly commercialized holiday or an American holiday infringing upon local customs (or both). However, in many cases, that resistance wanes over time as new generations find ways to both honor existing traditions and incorporate new ones.
A similar scenario is unfolding in Asia, where Western-style Halloween is slowly finding its place alongside traditional "days of the dead" such as China's Hungry Ghosts Festival (among others). This is largely due to young, often urban dwellers who see the holiday less as a replacement for traditional holidays that commemorate the dead and more as a wholly different occasion to dress in costumes and celebrate life.