1. Halloween is a uniquely American holiday. It is celebrated in no other country although it traces to ancient customs from various cultures. This annual celebration takes place every year on October 31st. That day is followed by November 1, "All Hallows Day." Originally in Catholic countries, on All Hallows Day, all the saints (hallowed or holy) people who have died are honored. Thus, the day before became known as "All Hallows Eve" -- or "Hallow's E'en." Eventually the name was corrupted and became simply "Halloween." With this change, over time a new name was created, and people no longer remembered the original meaning of the word or the holiday.
2. However, there was another ancient celebration that influenced our modern Halloween traditions. Originally, October 31 had a different meaning for the Celts of Ireland. As early as the 5th century, the official end of summer, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on Samhain (sow-en), October 31. Throughout the years both European Christian traditions and Celtic pagan traditions became mixed, and resulted in traditions that we still associate with the holiday we now call Halloween.
3. Celtic tradition said that on Samhain, the spirits of all those who had died during the year came back to look for living bodies to possess. People belived that the spirits could take someone's body and control it, even live in it, for the next year. According the Celtic tradition, the disembodied dead, ghosts without physical bodies, could only live after death if they could inhabit another body. On this day, the Celts believed that the natural laws were temporarily suspended, allowing the spirits of the dead to come back to life and walk among the living in search of bodies. Today most people do not believe that the laws of nature can be temporarily stopped -- even on Halloween.
4. Naturally, the people who were still-living did not want their bodies to be possessed by dead spirits, so on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make their homes cold, dark, and uninviting. Then, to deceive any wandering spirits, they would dress up in ghoulish costumes to frighten away the spirits that were looking for bodies to possess. These costumed villagers paraded around their village, making noise and being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away the spirits.
5. Over time, the Romans invaded Celtic Ireland. Eventually, the Celtic rituals became associated with the Roman practices, and the practices began to change over time. People no longer believed in spirit possession; however, the custom of dressing up like ghosts, witches, and other frightening creatures remained.
6. When immigrants from Ireland came to the U.S. in the 1840s, they brought with them their customs. One of those was the custom of Halloween. Every Halloween, men, women, and children dressed up in costumes and played pranks, such as tipping over outhouses and taking fence gates off their hinges. Today we have indoor toilets instead of outhouses, but some young people still play Halloween tricks on people -- stealing mailboxes, setting off firecrackers, or writing on car windows with soap.
7. The tradition of Halloween includes dressing up in costumes and playing pranks, but most of all, trick-or-treating. Trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Celts, but with a ninth-century Christian Europeans. They believed that after death most souls could not enter heaven directly; however, prayers from the living would help them to reach heaven sooner. On November 2, All Souls Day, poor people would go from door to door begging for "soul cakes." People would give them these small cakes, and, in turn, the beggars were supposed to pray for their dead relatives. Today children dressed in costumes go from door to door, saying "Trick or Treat." They are given "treats," usually candy but sometimes money or cookies. The phrase "trick or treat" means "Give us a treat or we will play a trick."