All Tricks, No Treats: The History of Halloween

Halloween wasn't always about costumes and candy -- find out how the holiday got its start, and the history behind some of the traditions.

All Tricks, No Treats: The History of Halloween

Halloween wasn't always about costumes and candy -- find out how the holiday got its start, and the history behind some of the traditions.

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It may come as a surprise to those of you lying in bed nursing Halloween-party hangovers that Halloween wasn’t always about costumes and candy (and too much hard cider — ouch).

Halloween – formerly Hallowe’en, a contraction of Hallows’ Evening, a version of All Hallows’ Eve…you get the idea — is celebrated in many Western countries on the eve of the Christian feast known as All Hallows’ Day and kicks off the three-day-long festivities of Allhallowtide (one word) that celebrates the (faithful) dead.

But the origins of Halloween are disputed. The widely accepted story is that, back in the olden days, Gaelic and Christian traditions merged, where the pagan harvest festival of Samhain was Christianized and All Hallows’ Eve was born. Others believe that Halloween originated as a purely Christian tradition without outside influence. (One thing we can all agree on: Candy is key.)


Samhain (the “mh” is pronounced like a “w”) is an annual Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter (kind of like our Thanksgiving celebrations).

It’s believed to have existed since ancient times and is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and mythology. Some classic rituals involved the slaughtering of livestock in preparation for the winter and the lighting of bonfires, which were said to have protective powers. Key to the connection between Samhain and Halloween as we celebrate it today was the idea that the boundary between the mortal world and the Otherworld (think Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) could be crossed.(Spooky.)

It was also believed that the souls of dead loved ones would revisit their homes, and so feasts were held as offerings, and people went door-to-door in costume. And, while today we have apple-bobbing as a common Halloween game, back then, divination rituals involving apples and nuts were a big part of the festivities.

Unlike what you may have seen in Halloween 2 and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Samhain didn’t involve murder or the mass sacrifice of children. Misinformed scholars at one time argued that Samhain was a Satanic celebration inspired by the supposed Celtic worship of Balsab, or “Lord of Death,” where people were burned at the stake and ritualistically sacrificed, but there’s no legitimate evidence of this either in writing or in Celtic folklore. In fact, Samhain loosely translates to “summer’s end.” (Doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Lord of Death,” does it?)


Canada was the first North American country to celebrate Halloween when Scottish migration brought it first here, and then to the United States. (That, plus Thanksgiving and Labour Day, you’re welcome, America.)

The first written evidence of Halloween celebrations in North America comes from Kingston, Ontario in 1911 when a newspaper reported children dressing in costume and going door-to-door for treats, but photographic evidence of children in costumecan be seen even earlier in the archives of the Young Woman’s Christian Association, located in Peterborough, Ontario, from the late 1800s.

Apart from Christmas, Canadians spend the most money on candy during Halloween. (We need to prep our winter bodies!) In 2013, Scotiabank also conducted a poll that showed the average Canadian was preparing to spend up to $70 on their Halloween celebrations, including costumes. This year, the most searched for Halloween costume in Canada has been Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, followed by Kim Kardashian West and, simply, “Unicorn.” American President Donald Trump is way down in eighth place (SAD!), behind Paw Patrol and the Devil (and here we thought they were one and the same….too much? #sorrynotsorry).

Recently making headlines across Canada has been the age-old debate around how old is too old for trick-or-treating. After a night of mischief from older teens, the town of Bathurst, New Brunswick was the first known town to ban anyone over 16 from trick-or-treating and instated a curfew of 8pm ET. This was actually a revision of an earlier town by-law that had banned kids older than 14 from trick-or-treating due to their mischievous ways. (To be fair, it is called trick-or-treating.)


Many countries, like Canada, continue to celebrate this ancient holiday in their own unique ways. Only a select number of places in Europe celebrate Halloween; in the Americas, North American influence is responsible for the celebrations across the American continents, but some of those countries have taken the festivities to a whole new level, making our trick-or-treating and apple bobbing look pretty #basic.

• London, England

If anywhere in the world is haunted, it’s definitely London; from the Tower of London to Jack the Ripper, the city has been home to a fair number of bloodbaths. Grisly history aside, London also puts on a bunch of cool attractions around Oct. 31 to get visitors in the Halloween spirit, including ghost walks, themed dinners, and Halloween parades. The city even refers to its plethora of spooky offerings as London Month of the Dead. (Yes, please.)

• Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Anyone partying in Amsterdam sparks major FOMO even on the most regular of days, but the country’s Halloween celebrations certainly take the (European) cake. Apparently the Dutch know how to throw one hell of a party, such as the Helter Skelter Halloween Party at the Hard Rock Café, where your entry ticket gets you dinner and unlimited alcohol for the entire night. Oct. 27 also marked the city’s annual Halloween Costume Party put on by Amsterdam Spook, and this year’s theme was Cabinet of Curiosities – think Victorian-era mad scientists and steampunk cosplay. If those don’t float your boat, you can always try the all-night scary movie marathon…if you dare.

• Mexico’s Día de Muertos

The Day of the Dead is actually a multi-day holiday celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 and covers the Western Christian triduum of Allhallowtide: All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. Some of the traditions you might recognize include honouring the dead by visiting their graves with gifts of food, sugar skulls (calaveras), and creating private altars called ofrendas. Rather than a time of mourning, this is a colourful and exciting holiday where participants dress in fancy skeleton costumes and sugar skull face paintThe elaborate costumed parade held in Mexico City is a brand new tradition, which owes its roots to the iconic opening from Spectre. Día de Muertos may not be the same as Halloween, but it’s certainly worth a visit if you’re looking for a little something different.


Ever wondered where our modern-day ghost stories originated from? Take Dracula, for example. Vampires aren’t real…right?

• Count Dracula

The legend of the famed vampire being hunted by Professor Abraham Van Helsing first appeared on paper in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but did you know that the character was inspired by a real-life villain?

From 1448–1477, Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Vlad III Dracula) terrorized the people and enemies of his kingdom of Wallachia (modern-day Romania). His legacy as prince and ruler outlines his tendency towards (and, arguably, enjoyment of) torture and violence. German descriptions of Vlad say he was a “demented psychopath, a sadist, a gruesome murderer, a masochist.” (Gee, he must have rubbed them the wrong way.) Legend has it that he liked to impale people (hence the nickname), and is rumoured to have eaten his meals while he watched his victims slowly slide down the spikes to their deaths. (He also didn’t discriminate by age. Yikes.)

But surely vampires are scarier.

• Countess Elizabeth Báthory

Some argue that Bram Stoker was also inspired by The Blood Countess, or real-life Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed of Hungary who is, to this day, the world’s “most prolific female serial killer” with a rumoured 650 murders under her belt. While under testimony, 300 eyewitnesses were able to verify the brutal murders of young women at her hands between the years 1585 and 1609. The rumour that she bathed in the blood of her victims only came out years after her death, and she’s since earned the moniker Countess Dracula.

• The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton fans are likely familiar with his 2007 film Sweeney Todd, the musical inspired by the Victorian-era penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls that depicts a barbershop serial killer and his accomplice, a baker, turning their victims into meat pies and serving them to customers. Unfortunately, there are rumours that the story just might have some basis in truth. An old urban legend from London, England popularized by Charles Dickens warns patrons of dubious pie fillings. (We’ll stick to chocolate and wine for the next little while.)

• Bloody Mary

If you grew up attending slumber parties, you were probably forced to play the Bloody Mary game. Urban legend dictates that if you stand in a dark bathroom, staring into the mirror, and say Bloody Mary three times, a ghost will appear. An episode of Supernatural depicts her as a malevolent ghost who hunts down and kills her victims after they’ve played the game. The name and legend is conflated with real-life Queen Mary I of England, daughter of King Henry VIII and also known as “Bloody Mary” due to what has been termed the Marian persecutions, where she commanded more than 280 religious dissenters to be burned at the stake. (We don’t know what’s worse: seven years’ bad luck or conjuring up a murderous ghost.)



Whether you’re into vampires or ghosts, chocolate or pan de muerto (a.k.a. bread of the dead – yum!), one thing’s for sure: you can’t celebrate Halloween without a kick-ass costume. If a last-minute visit to a big box costume store is giving you anxiety, these super-trendy and Canadian-friendly costume ideas are easy to whip up in a pinch.

If dressing up as Justin Trudeau or the ever-classic newly legalized marijuana  isn’t for you, one of these ultra-simple DIY Halloween costume ideas will make all your party pals face-palm at your sheer genius.

Halloween isn’t just about the costumes – decorations are also part of the fun, and it’s certainly no fun to have a plain-old smiling jack-o-lantern. Take your pumpkin carving and decorating to a whole new level with these ideas that are fun for the whole family. Looking for more of a challenge but less mess? Try these 11 no-carve pumpkin decorating ideas instead!

Go beyond pumpkins with these 40 creative DIY decor ideas. From kid-friendly piñatas to a fantastically ghostly Halloween bar (now we’re talking), these decorations are to die for. (See what we did there?)

Last but not least, make sure to get out of the house and attend one of these spook-tacular Halloween events happening across the country.

Happy Halloween!

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