Halloween Traditions for the Family

Why do we wear costumes and go trick-or-treating? Find out the spooky history behind Halloween traditions and discover frightful and fun ideas.

01 of 16


children dressed up for halloween
Alloy Photography/Veer

The weather is getting cooler, the leaves are falling, and store shelves are stocked with costumes and plenty of candy. Halloween is almost here! How much do you know about this beloved holiday? "Treat" yourself to a tour of Halloween traditions, from its historical roots to modern celebration ideas to helpful safety tips.

02 of 16

What Is Halloween?

A Spooky Street Sign
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Halloween, traditionally observed on October 31, is associated with the western world and celebrated in North America by the U.S. and Canada. A favorite holiday among children, Halloween is a fun day that encourages them to dress up in costumes, tell spine-tingling stories, and go from door to door collecting candy. To use an appropriate metaphor, Halloween is the Frankenstein's monster of holidays because it is pieced together from a number of different world traditions, customs, legends, and beliefs.

These include the ancient Celtic harvest festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in and also celebrated on October 31), which anticipated the coming winter and the rise in deaths that came with the cold, harsh season. Catholic festivals that commemorate martyrs and souls of the dead, such as All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2), also contribute to Halloween's associations with celebrating ghosts and spirits.

03 of 16

Tradition: Why We Go Trick-or-Treating

children dressed in Halloween costumes
Blend Images/Veer

By the mid-1900s in America, Halloween had become an opportunity for kids (and adults) to wear costumes and parade from house to house, asking for money or sweet treats. The tradition was especially popular among the poor, but it soon expanded to include everyone, especially children. The happy cry of "Trick-or-treat!" is actually more threat than harmless jingle. The holiday has long been associated with mischief of all kinds, and handing out candy (instead of pennies or apples) is considered a treat that will "sweetly" dissuade kids from participating in any tricks. Anyone withholding candy may have silly pranks played on them.

04 of 16

Tips for Safe Trick-or-Treating

Alloy Photography/Veer

Following simple safety rules will help you avoid scary situations. Wear flame-resistant costumes and masks that allow for clear vision. Watch out for any props, like beards, wigs, and capes, that can get caught. Have everyone wear sturdy shoes to prevent twisted ankles. Always stay with your group and never deviate from the chosen route. Keep walkways and front stoops free of obstacles (candles, jack-o'-lanterns) that might cause someone to trip, and inspect all candy before the kids dive in.

05 of 16

How to Collect Your Candy

boy looking in trick-or-treat bag
Cameron Sadeghpour

Stores are teeming with pumpkin-shaped bucket made for candy collecting. Get creative with your trick-or-treat vessel by using a pillowcase (which holds more candy than any bucket!) or a clean beach pail, or craft your own spook-tacular bag by decorating a plain paper lunch sack or grocery bag.

06 of 16

Tradition: Why We Wear Costumes

Costume party
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

The many late-October and early-November festivals that historically preceded Halloween had one thing in common--they all featured costume parades where people dressed up as skeletons, witches, and other chilling creatures. The roots of this tradition vary from the 17th-century British custom of wearing a mask and attending a bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) to wearing costumes and telling fortunes at the Samhain festival. Today, Halloween costumes in America are a way to display creativity and fantasy, with disguises that are hair-raising (monsters), cute (bunny rabbits), royal (princesses), cartoonish (superheroes), magical (wizards), realistic (firefighters), and more.

07 of 16

Inventive Costume Ideas

Sushi costume
Jenny Risher

Halloween is a time for originality and imagination, so make the trick-or-treating rounds in costumes that will get plenty of oohs and aahs. Check out unusual handmade, DIY costume ideas for pregnant moms, kids, siblings or pairs, family or groups, plus store-bought costumes for babies and toddlers.

08 of 16

Tradition: The Symbols and Colors of Halloween

Ghosts hanging from doorframe
Steven Randazzo

Halloween symbols can be divided into two groups that symbolize death and decay -- eerie images of darkness, and harvest images of summer ending. The first group consists of scary animals such as spiders (and spiderwebs), bats, and black cats or supernatural creatures like witches, ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. Tombstones and death in "human" form (as a skeletal figure with a black hood) are also included. The second group consists of motifs associated with the fall, such as pumpkins, apples, cornhusks, scarecrows, and autumnal leaves.

As summer gives way to winter, the colors orange and black are associated with Halloween. Days are shorter and darker because light is waning, so black represents death and nighttime creatures. Orange represents pumpkins, as the gourds match the turning leaves of the changing, cooling season and the decrease in life and abundance.

09 of 16

Tradition: The Power of Superstitions

Ocean Photography/Veer

What's so horrifying about a black cat? Nothing... unless you believe the kitty is a disguised witch who brings bad luck if it crosses your path. This and other superstitions peak at Halloween, when the spirit world and other mysteries are on our minds. For example, some believe the spiders that are part of decorations represent the spirits of deceased loved ones. The candle that burns inside a jack-o'-lantern is thought to keep evil spirits away. Not all superstitions are bad -- some people consider it good luck to burn new candles on Halloween. Keep superstitions in the "fun" category by remembering that they're common but unfounded beliefs.

10 of 16

Halloween Party Decor

Eyes see you
Alison Miksch

With a few simple DIY touches, you can transform your home into a haunted house. Start with orange and black colors and go from there. Cut out felt or paper "eyes" to peer out at partygoers from mirrors, doorways, or trees. Line windows with black paper silhouettes in spooky shapes or decorate the food table with creepy decorations like a mini-pumpkin spider placed among the treats.

11 of 16

Tradition: Why We Bob for Apples

Bobbing for Apples
Image Source/Veer

According to the David J. Skal's book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, Halloween was once known in England as "Snap-Apple Night" because of the popular game of bobbing for apples that float in a tub of water. Apples, like pumpkins, are associated with the fall harvest. The game was once used by young adults in England to tell each other's fortunes and reveal who they would one day marry, but now it's played by older kids and adults because it's entertaining and also challenging.

12 of 16

Halloween Party Games

Mystery Bowls
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Bobbing for apples is just one fun traditional game, but there are nontraditional ways to enjoy Halloween. Line up small pumpkins and have a "bowling" contest by using a bigger, round pumpkin as the "ball," or set up a "putting" area and have kids hit a golf ball into a hollowed-out pumpkin. Group kids into teams and see how fast they can make a "mummy" out of one team member by using a few rolls of toilet paper (remember to leave room for breathing!). Or have the groups work together to make up an eerie story: The first player starts with "It was a dark and stormy night..." and then each player takes turns adding a phrase or sentence to build on the frightful fun.

13 of 16

Tradition: Why We Carve Pumpkins

Blaine Moats

Author David Skal explains that the phrase "Jack-with-the-lantern" was first used in the mid-1600s to describe a night watchman holding a lantern. "Jack" was also a figure in British folklore that was known for being a trickster and prank-maker. The direct connection between "jack-o'-lantern" and carving pumpkins with goofy or ghoulish expressions and images isn't clear, but these legends are likely connected to the glowing pumpkin faces we see displayed on Halloween night.

14 of 16

Tips for Safe Carving and Decorating

pumpkin carving
Peter Krumhardt

Start by lifting large, heavy pumpkins the right way (adults should bend their knees to avoid straining their backs). Carve pumpkins on a sturdy surface, preferably a long table or a floor covered with newspapers, in a well-lit area. Use a knife (avoid a super-sharp one that can be dangerous when tugged loose) to cut in the direction away from yourself, and make small, controlled strokes. Or try a pumpkin-carving kit that comes with a small, saw-like cutter made for little hands to use safely. If you're carving, trace a template onto the pumpkin's "face," or stick with the classic look of triangular eyes and nose and a wide, toothy grin. If you want to avoid using a knife altogether, use a paintbrush and paints, colored markers, glitter pens, stickers, or materials to decorate.

15 of 16

Tradition: Collecting for UNICEF

trick-or-treat for UNICEF

Since the 1950s, children have collected more than candy on Halloween night. Toting cardboard boxes marked with the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) logo, kids collect coins for the charity. UNICEF programs include immunization, education, and health care programs for needy children in more than 150 countries around the world, and in the 60 years since trick-or-treaters started collecting, more than $160 million has been donated.

16 of 16

Halloween Around the World

Day of the Dead

Besides Ireland's Samhain and Britain's Guy Fawkes Day, other countries have holidays similar to Halloween. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), involves preparing the favorite foods of deceased loved ones and sharing photos of them in remembrance. The Festival of Hungry Ghosts is observed each year in China, where sweet foods are offered to please spirits and keep them from being angry. Different cultures, including Australia, Italy, France, and South America, are also adopting the North American holiday and tailoring it to their own beliefs and customs.

Copyright &copy 2011 Meredith Corporation.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer in Arlington, Massachusetts. Her website is http://hollyrossi.com

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