The History of Halloween for Kids

Bedtime History

Every year around this time in North America, the nights get longer and darker.  Children start to visit pumpkin patches and plan their costumes all in the hopes of getting ready for Halloween.  People decorate their yards with scary scenes and decorations.  And families fill large bowls with candy to hand out to children on Halloween Night. 

Have you ever wondered where the tradition of Halloween comes from?

Halloween began as an ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (“sow-in”).  Celtic people were northern European people that lived in the United Kingdom and Ireland 2,000 years ago.  The Samhain festival was celebrated on the Celtic peoples’ new year, which was on November 1st.  

The festival marked the end of summer and the beginning of dark cold winters.  The Celtic people believed that on the night before the new year, the ghosts of the dead returned to the earth for one night. 

During the festival of Samhain, people would light bonfires and wear costumes. The purpose was that they thought that it was one night a year that they could also predict the future.  They thought that the bonfire and costumes helped them to tell each other’s fortunes.  The Celtic people thought of these spirits as friendly, after all they were ghosts of their relatives.  They set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and lit candles along the side of the road leading up to their houses to help their loved ones find their way back home and then back to the spirit world.

Usually, the night after the Samhain festival, people would use fire from the sacred bonfire to re-light the fires in their home fireplaces.  They thought that this would help to protect them during the winter.  

Many years later, Roman people invaded the area and Christianity spread to the Celtic people that lived there.  By the 9th century, Christian traditions blended together with Celtic traditions, including the Samhain celebrations on November 1st.  

The Christian church called November 1st “All Souls’ Day” and it became a day that was blended together into one festival to honour the dead.

The newly titled, “All Souls Day” was celebrated in a way similar to what had been done to celebrate Samhain. People made big bonfires and dressed up in costumes and had parades.  The costumes that most people dressed up in at the time were of saints, angels and devils. The Middle English word Alholowmesse meant “All Saints’ Day” and later became “All-hallows”. The night before that, October 31st, became known as “All-Hallows Eve” and eventually, Halloween.

When immigrants travelled from the United Kingdom to America in the 1500s and 1600s, they brought Halloween with them. On the east coast of America, new Americans from Europe and Native Americans already living there, started to interact.  Eventually Halloween began to become a blended event again.  This time, it was version of the European version and American version brought together — also called a hybrid.  A hybrid means a thing that is made by combining two different elements.  And so Halloween changed again as it became a new version in America.

People began to hold plays to celebrate the harvest season and they would act out and share stories about the dead and dance and sing.  Some of the practices came from the Celtic Samhain festival and some were Native American practices.  People also told each other’s fortunes, played tricks on each other and told stories about the dead.  

Halloween started to spread from the east coast of America across the country.  Many new immigrants started coming to the United States from Ireland and other places.  As the Irish people, who were ancestors of the Celtic people, spread across the country and the tradition of celebrating Halloween came with them.

In England and Ireland, the celebration of All-Hallows Eve involved dressing up in costumes and going from house to house to ask for money or food.  In America, this became the tradition of trick-or-treating.  

The tradition of dressing up in costumes on Halloween began in old England as well.  In the olden days on All Hallows Eve, people thought that ghosts came back to earth for one day.  They generally tried not to leave their homes on that day, but if they did have to for some reason, they would dress in a costume of a ghost or spirit so that if they did come across a ghost, it would think they were a ghost too.

Another tradition of Celtic people on All Hallows Eve was to leave bowls of food outside their houses so that ghosts would find it and be happy.  As a result, they wouldn’t try to get in the house.  This was the start of the tradition of “Trick-or-treating.”

Trick-or-treating today is a very popular activity.  But in the old days it was not the same activity as it was in Celtic times.  Back then, there were a lot of poor people.  Because so many people were hungry, the government encouraged families who had enough food to put out bowls on Halloween to give the food to the poor instead.  People started doing this and once it became a common practice, more and more people started going door to door to beg for food on All Hallows Eve.  One type of food that people would commonly give out was called “soul cakes”.  People started handing these out to people who knocked on their door in exchange for the poor person making promises that they would say prayers for their dead relatives. 

The tradition of handing out treats became more wide-spread over time, and more and more people joined the practice of “trick-or-treating.”  Eventually, people would play tricks on their neighbours on this night to make them think that ghosts were trying to get into their house.  This grew into all sorts of different tricks and jokes.  But some people did not like to get pranked. In order to prevent tricks being played on them, some neighbours started handing out sweets to make them stop.  

Another common superstition that we practice on Halloween is avoiding crossing paths with black cats.  The idea that black cats cause bad luck came from the Middle Ages.  Back then, many people believed that witches were real.  They thought that if a witch was spotted and being chased, that she would turn into a black cats so that she could escape and no one could know where she was.

In the late 1800s, many people because religious.  Some of the most widespread religions in America at the time did not think that it was good to dress up as ghosts or celebrate the dead on Halloween.  They wanted Halloween to be more of a happy celebration about neighbours and getting together.  They started getting together to host parties and had costumes and games and treats instead of the traditional plays and bonfires and pranking.

Community leaders started encouraging people to stop wearing scary costumes.  Kids started to dress in sweet or funny costumes often instead.  Because of these efforts, in the early 1900s, Halloween lost much of its superstitious and religious elements. Superstitious means believing in and celebrating supernatural beings, like ghosts.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a “baby boom” in America, which means that a lot of babies were born within a short period of time.  This happened after the second world war because soldiers came home and western countries were safe and happy again.  Because there were so many kids born at that time, the parties that used to be held in the town centre or town hall area in past years were now moved to be celebrated in classrooms and house parties where more people could fit comfortably.

Today Halloween is an American tradition and has become incredibly popular.  People spend millions of dollars each year on Halloween candy and decorations.  Halloween is the second most popular western holiday after Christmas  

Is Halloween something that you celebrate in your neighborhood?  Do you like to get dressed up in costumes in October and attend parties?  Well now that you know the history of Halloween, you will know where some of these interesting traditions come from.  Maybe you’ll also think about how interesting it is that traditions change over time, as different people move to different parts of the world and bring traditions with them and how others adopt them and turn them into their own version over time.  It is cool to think that many traditions of Halloween have lasted over 2,000 years and have become widespread in many other countries than the celebration’s Celtic origin. And it is equally interesting to think about how the celebration has changed over time and why.

Regardless, we hope you have a safe and happy Halloween and that you get a chance to have some fun with some of the old and new traditions that are part of this spooky but fun time of year.  Happy Halloween!


About Bedtime History

Bedtime History is a series of educational, relaxing stories for kids and families. Learn about inspirational characters such as Jackie Robinson, Sacajawea, Neil Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Other topics include space exploration, current events, and great feats of engineering such as The Transcontinental Railroad.