On today’s episode, we will look at the spookiest holiday in the western world.

What are the origins of Halloween? Why do we dress up in costumes, carve pumpkins, and trick or treat? All of these questions, and more, will be discussed on this episode of Thinking in English

(If you can’t see the podcast player click here to listen!)


Clad (adj) – (of people) dressed, or (of things) covered

A strange figure appeared in the doorway, clad in white 

Garment (n) – a piece of clothing

He’s fussy about how his garments fit

To sacrifice (v) – to kill an animal or person and offer them to a god or gods

They sacrificed a sheep to their god

Sacrifice (n) – the animal or thing that is offered/sacrificed

The people offered a sheep as a sacrifice

To dress up (phrasal v) – to put on special clothes in order to change your appearance 

He dressed up as a cowboy for the party

To celebrate (v) – to take part in special enjoyable activities in order to show that a particular occasion is important 

We always celebrate our wedding anniversary by going out to dinner 

Bonfire (n) – a large fire that is made outside to burn unwanted things, or for pleasure

We built a bonfire on the beach

To land (v) – to arrive on land from the sea or air

We should land at Paris Airport in 15 minutes

Roots (plural n) – origins

This city can trace its roots back to roman times

To start today’s episode, I’d like you to imagine this situation.

You’re standing on a hill in Ancient Ireland, looking over a field below you. It is a pitch black night in late October or early November. The air is so cold that your breath turns to steam as you breath out, and an icy rain is falling from the sky.

Although the night is pitch black, it is glowing orange and red thanks to a massive fire burning in the field. Around the fire, hundreds of people, who have travelled from neighbouring villages just for this celebration, are gathering.

They are clad head to toe in strange garments; including animal heads and animal skins. Into the fire they are throwing crops and animals as sacrifices, while trying to tell each other’s fortunes.

After the ceremony is over, they travel home and relight their home’s fires using the fire from the bonfire.

What is this strange ceremony that you have just witnessed? Well, it was actually the start of a holiday that we now call Halloween.

Actually today is also Halloween! Or, at least, the day I’m uploading this episode (October 31st 2020) will be Halloween. You’ve probably heard about Halloween before: scary movies, costume parties, trick or treating, decorating houses, and eating a lot of chocolate. These are just some of the common and popular ways of celebrating the day.

But how much do you really know about Halloween? Where did the celebration start? And when? What is the reason behind the holiday? Why do children go trick or treating and dress up as scary monsters? 

Let’s start with the history of Halloween.

The origins of Halloween can be found in the ancient festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in). This was a Celtic festival (the Celts lived in parts of Northern Europe especially the British Isles, Ireland and Northern France 2000 years ago) celebrating their new year, as well as the end of summer, beginning of winter, and the harvest.

However, they also believed that during the night before the new year, the world of living people and the world of dead people became even more connected. Samhain, celebrated on the 31st October, was the day when the ghosts of their ancestors returned to their world. They built large fires, dressed in strange costumes, made predictions about the future, and sacrificed crops and animals to the spirits. 

1000 years ago, the Christian religion became one of the largest, if not the largest, religions in the British Isles and therefore Celtic territory. At the same time, the catholic church made its own festival on November 2nd to honour the dead; known as All Souls Day.

The Celts, although now Christian, continued to celebrate using the same methods; bonfires, parades, and dressing in costumes! The day, in old English, was known as All-Hallowmas, and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

As Europeans began to move to North America, they took their traditions with them, including Halloween. However, it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century and the millions of Irish people who landed in the USA at that time, that Halloween became popular all over the nation. But, this Halloween was very different to what we, today, understand as Halloween. 

So, let’s now think about some of our current traditions and why we actually do these things. It is quite common for people, all around the world, to continue traditions for hundreds of years without actually knowing why.

First, what about trick or treating?

Trick or treating is where people, usually children dressed in costumes, go from door to door on Halloween asking for sweets with the exclamation ‘trick or treat’.

Why? It is borrowed from the ancient European traditions of dressing up in costumes. In the 19th century, Americans also began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.

At the same time, the parts of Halloween that were superstitious and religious were less and less important! It is now estimated that Americans spend $6 billion a year on candy for Halloween.

How about costumes? Again it is connected to the Celtic roots.

On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark.

Some of the most popular costumes are monsters, ghosts, vampires, and the like. Recently, other costumes are becoming just as popular; for instance characters from TV or movies, costumes that are attractive rather than terrifying, and even funny costumes related to internet memes. 

What about pumpkins? Carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns is a popular Halloween tradition that originated hundreds of years ago in Ireland.

Back then, however, jack-o’-lanterns were made out of turnips or potatoes; it wasn’t until Irish immigrants arrived in America and discovered the pumpkin that a new Halloween ritual started!

Final Thought

Something important to remember is that the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the medieval celebrations of All Souls day and All Hallows eve, and modern American Halloween are not the same.

Much of what we think of today began in the USA; trick or treating, pumpkins, giving candy, scary monsters, etc. Britain, for instance, didn’t really begin trick or treating until about 50 years ago – it is definitely not a long and ancient holiday here.

And many of the scary costumes, stories, and activities that are popular now are based on our modern fears. The original celebrations were much more spiritual and religious.

Many holidays celebrated in the west are getting increasingly secular and commercialised. Christmas, Easter, as Halloween, are nowhere near as religious as they used to be.

What about in your countries? Are your traditional holidays, festivals, and celebrations changing? Do you know how and why they started? 


Q. When is Halloween?

Q. Which ancient festival was the origin of Halloween?

Q. How much do Americans spend on Halloween annually?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “14. What is Halloween?”
  1. Thank you so much for helping me to think more and more in English. I found your episodes so interesting and clear to understand.

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