From communion with the dead to pumpkins and pranks, Halloween is a patchwork holiday, stitched together with cultural, religious and occult traditions that span centuries.
It all began with the Kelts, a people whose culture had spread across Europe more than two thousand years ago. October 31st was the day they celebrated the end of the harvest season in a festival called "Samhain." That night also marked the Keltic New Year and was considered the time "between years," a magical time when the ghost of the dead watched the Earth.
It was the time when the veil between death and life was supposed to be at its thinnest.
On "Samhain," the villagers gathered and lit huge bonfires to drive the dead back to the spirit world and keep them away from the living. But, as the Catholic Church's influences grew in Europe, it frowned on the pagan rituals like "Samhain." In the 7th century, the Vatican began to merge it with the church-sanctioned holiday. So November 1st was designated "All Saints' Day" to honor martyrs and the deceased faithful.
Both of these holidays had to do with the afterlife and about survival after death. It was a calculated move on the part of the Church to bring more people into the fold.
"All Saints' Day" was known then as "Hallowmas." "Hallow" means "holy" or "saintly", so the translation is roughly "Mass of the Saints." The night before October 31st was "All Hallows' Eve," which gradually morphed into "Halloween."
The holiday came to America with the wave of Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine of the 1840s. They brought several of their holiday customs with them, including "Bobbing for Apples" and playing tricks on neighbors, like removing gates from the front of houses. The young pranksters were masked, so they wouldn't be recognized. But over the years, the tradition of harmless tricks grew into outright vandalism.
Back in the 1930s, it really became a dangerous holiday. I mean, there was such hooliganism and vandalism. Trick-or-treating was originally an extortion deal: Give us candy or we'll trash your house.
Store keepers and neighbors began giving treats or bribes to stop the tricks, and children were encouraged to travel door to door for treats as an alternative to trouble-making. By the late 30s, "trick-or-treat" became a holiday greeting.