5 typical American Halloween customs explained

As Halloween night creeps in, you might be wondering where some of our favorite holiday traditions and beliefs originated. We talked to Moira Marsh, an Indiana University librarian for anthropology, folklore and sociology, who shared her expertise in folklore, holidays, customs and superstitions.

"Most of the time, when we think of the dead, we think of it in much more sentimental terms," Marsh said. "But it's not all sentimental in reality. So this is the one time of year that we look square on at the dark side and acknowledge that it's there."

Student holds carved pumpkin.View print quality image
Jack-o'-lantern carving relates to an old legend that has appeared in many forms over time. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Here are five explanations of American Halloween customs that you might be curious about:

Where did Halloween come from?

Halloween originated from Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival celebrated by the pagans at the end of October, as the world transitioned from light to dark for the winter. The pagans believed the dead visited their houses on this night.

The holiday was later adopted by the Christian Church, and the name "Halloween" is a reference to All Hallows' Even. "Hallow" meant sainted, for the dead, and "even" was short for evening. It was the evening before the day meant to commemorate those who had passed away, All Saints Day.

Where did the idea of Halloween ghosts come from?

The ancient festival of Samhain was considered one of the "quarter": holidays. There are four times in the year when the seasons shift, and there's a paradigm shift in the calendar for each.

Marsh said Samhain was considered a potentially dangerous time. The belief was that the boundaries between the living and the afterlife were temporarily thin and porous during this shift, so there was a need for ritual to help those who had passed in the last year make their journey to the afterlife. There are many religious interpretations of this connection to the dead at this time of year.

Why do kids trick-or-treat?

The concept of house visits has always been a key part of Halloween customs, Marsh said, and it also began with the pagans, who prepared their homes for visits from the dead on Samhain. They believed that while some of the dead were their loved ones, and therefore non-malicious, others were dangerous. Homeowners would leave out treats to mollify the malicious ones and gifts to honor the benevolent ones.

As far back as the 18th century, adolescents adopted this idea into a practice of harassing their neighbors. According to Marsh, this often got out of control as the adolescents would vandalize properties and cause annoyances. In the 1950s, America transformed the night of mischief into the tamer, child-centered holiday it is now.

Why do we carve pumpkins?

The reason carved pumpkins are filled with candlelight and called "jack-o'-lanterns" relates to an old legend that has appeared in many forms over time.

According to one version of the tale, Marsh said, Jack-o'-Lantern was a real man who worked as a surveyor. Because he cheated when surveying property lines, he was condemned to walk the Earth after his death to put the lines right. As the legend goes, Jack carries a lantern while finding and fixing the property lines so he can escape purgatory. People used the legend to explain the strange lights that appear over marshes and swamps at night, calling them jack-o'-lanterns.

Later, when people carved vegetables to make a lantern for themselves to carry with them when they went from house to house scaring neighbors, they called them jack-o'-lanterns as well. In Europe, they first carved turnips. As pumpkins are a North American vegetable, seasonal to Halloween time as well as plentiful, large and easy to carve, the custom transformed into making the lanterns out of pumpkins.

Why do people dress in costume?

Originally, homeowners wore costumes or masks to resemble the dead in case they encountered ghosts during Samhain. However, playful costuming also dates back to when traditions of mumming were brought to North America, Marsh said.

Mumming is the winter custom of visiting houses in costume and performing a play in exchange for food or drink from the household. Many other cultures and countries have a similar concept of making house visits/performances in exchange for money or gifts, Marsh said. The exchange becomes a community-bonding event that creates neighborliness during the transition into a cold winter season.