We associate Halloween, which marks the start of the fall and winter holiday season, with trick-or-treating, costume parties, and jack-o’-lanterns. It has considerably more serious origins, though.
Halloween evolved from an old Celtic holiday, Samhain, marking the end of summer, a day on which the gods or spirits would appear on Earth to play tricks on mortals. When Christianity came to Britain, the Church adopted elements of the holiday, combining it with two existing holy days, All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), commemorating all the Christian saints, and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), an occasion for honoring the dead.
“Hallow” was an old word for saint, and Oct. 31, the eve of All Saints’ Day, was originally called All-Hallow-Even (short for evening). This evolved into “Hallowe’en,” and then into Halloween.
The Halloween traditions we’re most familiar with — including jack-o’-lanterns and dressing in costumes to confuse the wandering spirits — came to America with Irish immigrants in the 19th century. Americans, in turn, have exported these traditions to much of the world, so that the day is celebrated U.S.-style today in places as diverse as China, Egypt, and South Africa.
Many cultures have their own autumn holidays celebrating the dead. In Cambodia, it’s Pchum Ben, a three-day period in September or October during which the gates of hell are said to open, letting the spirits out to receive food offerings from their relatives. Bolivians observe the Fiesta de las Ñatitas on Nov. 8 each year by decorating skulls — real ones, either from deceased family members or obtained from medical schools or old cemeteries — with flowers, jewelry, hats, and glasses.
Many other countries observe Oct. 31, and/or All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, with customs of their own, usually involving some kind of tribute to their departed family and friends.