Halloween is celebrated on 31st October every year, and is also known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve. We delved into the history of this spooky celebration and its associated traditions, from the traditional pumpkin carving to the more modern dressing up of pets...
Where does it come from? The true origins of Halloween are widely disputed, but the general consensus is that it originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which means ‘summer’s end’.
This was to mark the end of the warmer weather and the harvest, and the beginning of the cold, dark winter. People believed that on this night, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, allowing ghosts to walk the earth. People would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off monsters and ghosts.
Decorative carved pumpkins are synonymous with Halloween. They are also known as ‘jack-o’-lanterns’, especially in America. This name is thought to originate from an Irish folktale about a man called Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil and wasn’t allowed into heaven or hell, so wandered the earth carrying a lantern. The jack-o’-lantern would originally be carved from turnips or potatoes, but as the tradition grew in popularity in America, pumpkins became the preferred choice as they were so readily available.
Trick-or-treating has also been around since medieval times in Scotland and Ireland, where it was known as ‘guising’. Children would dress up in costumes and ask for food or money in exchange for songs, poems or other tricks. And black cats? In the Middle Ages, people believed that witches could turn themselves into black cats to hide themselves, so they (rather unfairly) became associated with bad luck.
The contemporary Halloween is perhaps spooky in a different way: the spending associated with it. In America, Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of money spent (which is estimated to be approximately $8 billion in 2020, according to the National Research Federation). Nearly half of those surveyed said they would dress up in costumes for Halloween, with the most popular costumes being princesses and superheroes. And dressing up isn't just for the humans anymore. Spending on pet costumes was estimated at $490 million in 2019, with the most popular choices being pumpkin and hot dog. In the UK, 10 to 15 million pumpkins are grown each year, with 25% of the British public saying they tend to buy a pumpkin for Halloween. This amounts to £29.7 million spent on pumpkins alone!
Is Halloween also an opportunity for science? That depends on what you’re researching! A few scientific studies have used Halloween in their methodology, one of which took place in 1976. It looked into the conditions behind uninhibited behaviour by presenting trick-or-treating children with the opportunity to steal; children were told to take one sweet and left unattended with a pile of sweets and money. Children that had not been asked their name or address (so were anonymous), children in groups and children not accompanied by an adult were all more likely to take extra sweets or money (Diener et al., 1976). Another study in 2004 used Halloween to present children with an imaginary character, the Candy Witch, to investigate the factors affecting belief in fantasy beings in young children (Woolley et al., 2004).
Will you be carving out some time for pumpkins or donning your witch’s hat? This year, Halloween falls on a full moon for the first time in 19 years, and this one's a blue moon too! So watch out for werewolves, and have a spook-tacular time!
Diener, E., et al. Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1976;33(2):178–183.
Woolley, J. D., et al. A visit from the Candy Witch: Factors influencing young children's belief in a novel fantastical being. Developmental Science. 2004;7.4:456-468.