American Holidays: Halloween

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11636

It is clear how most holidays came to be celebrated, but Halloween is a "tricky" one! "Treat" yourself with this lesson, and research the U.S.' own Halloween traditions!


Social Studies

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Where did Halloween traditions originate?
  • What Halloween traditions are distinctly American?
  • Is Halloween just a fun time to get bags of candy?

The history and origins of Halloween stem from a number of old religious holidays.

Part of Halloween's origins comes from the Celts, an ethnic group living in western Europe around 1000 B.C. to 390 A.D. when they were overtaken by the Roman empire.

The Celts were highly superstitious and religious, believing in many gods. They celebrated the new year on November 1 because they believed this marked the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter months.

Celtic Druid

As part of their religious traditions, the Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the barrier between the living world and the dead world was broken, allowing ghosts to wander the earth.

They believed these ghosts would come to Earth to destroy their crops, so they would create large bonfires used for sacrificing crops and animals. The Celts would also dance around the fires wearing ornate animal costumes.

The festivities were intended to make the ghosts happy, and in return, they hoped the ghosts would not destroy their crops. The Celts referred to the last day of the year (October 31) as the Festival of Samhain.

When the Romans overtook the Celtic region, they replaced the traditions of Samhain with their mythological gods and traditions.

During the time of Roman rule, two festivals emerged out of Samhain: Feralia and Pomona.

Ferlia was celebrated in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead into the other world.

The Festival of Pomona was also celebrated towards the end of October to commemorate the goddess Pomona, goddess of fruits and trees. The symbol of an apple was used throughout Roman history to symbolize Pomona, and it is believed the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples comes from the Festival of Pomona.

bobbing for apples

Eventually, Christianity began to spread throughout Rome, and on May 13, 609 A.D., the Catholic Pope Boniface IV created the holiday of All Martyrs Day to commemorate those killed while spreading the mission of Christianity. The day was marked by a large feast.

A few years later, the holiday was moved to November 1 and incorporated the celebration of the saints into the festivities. This shift also caused the holiday to be changed to All Saints' Day.

In 1000 A.D., the Catholic church worked to rid Europe of the Festival of Samhain — still celebrated by some — by replacing it with a similar holiday that celebrated Christian customs. November 2, the day following All Saints' Day, was declared All Souls' Day and was a time to remember and pray for the souls of the dead.

All Saint's Day candles

All Souls' Day was celebrated with large bonfires, costumes, and parades. People began referring to the day before the festivities (October 31) as All Hallows Eve, which led to the name Halloween that is used today.

When Europeans began settling in North America, the celebration of Halloween was limited to certain parts of the colonies. Settlements that were predominately Catholic celebrated the holiday, while Protestant colonies opted out of the celebrations.

In the 1800s, with the wave of mass immigration to the United States, Halloween began to spread throughout the United States. Most immigrants came to the United States with nothing and would dress up and go from house to house on Halloween, asking for food or money.

This tradition evolved, and in the mid-1900s, trick-or-treating was implemented nationally in an attempt to reduce vandalism and mischief that often took place on Halloween.


Today, Halloween is still celebrated in many locations. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom also have their own versions of Halloween. Many of the traditions and customs in the United States, however, are unique.

In addition to trick-or-treating, Halloween is celebrated today with parades, parties, and seasonal food. Religious groups who dislike the pagan origins of the holiday will often hold harvest or fall festivals at their establishments for children.

fall festival

  • Does your family celebrate Halloween?

Now, move on to the Got It? section to continue learning about the history of this popular fall holiday.

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