The Story behind Halloween's Day

Ilaria D'Onofrio Program Assistant, Rome Center


October 30, 2018

Tomorrow, it is the 31st of October, and everybody knows what that really means: Halloween’s Day. So, I thought It would be interesting for everybody to investigate a little bit about the origin of this famous and mysterious festivity.

People think that today's Halloween customs have been influenced by folk customs and religious beliefs of Celtic-speaking countries, both pagan and Christian practices. In fact, Christian population were used to consider this particular day as the eve of the All Hallows' Day (also known as All Saints or Hallowmas) on November 1st  and All Souls' Day on November 2nd. Therefore, typical Halloween’s practices of the past were attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead. Others practices were lighting up bonfires, stashing a candle inside an empty turnip and telling horror stories, which today have become: candles in empty pumpkins, fireworks displays and watching a horror movie.

What about the famous question Trick or Treat? Nowadays, children go in costume from house to house, asking for candies and the famous question: Trick or Treat? The origin of that is believed to be linked with the typical practice of Germany, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, where masked persons in fancy dresses paraded the streets and entered houses to dance or play dice in silence. In Scotland and Ireland, this practice in known as guising - children dressed up in costumes and go from door to door for food or coins - and is recorded in 1895 where masqueraders visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit, and money.

Mass transatlantic immigration in the 19th century popularized Halloween in North America, and celebration in the United States and Canada has had a significant impact on how the event is observed in these and other nations. For example, we have the appearance of the iconic haunted house, a fundamental requisite for Halloween’s day in the US. It was during the 1930s, about the same time as trick-or-treating, that Halloween-themed haunted houses first began to appear in America, but the haunted house as an American cultural icon can be attributed to the opening of the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland on August  12th, 1969.

This larger North American influence, particularly in iconic and commercial elements, has extended to places such as Ecuador, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other parts of East Asia. In Mexico and Latin American in general, Halloween is referred to as Día de los Muertos which translates in English to Day of the Dead. Most of the people from Latin America construct altars in their homes to honor their deceased relatives and they decorate them with flowers, candies, food and other offerings.

halloween in italy

Now we can focus our attention to Italy where, even though your typical Halloween conception is not a deep-rooted element of our culture, we can still find a link between your story and our custom of paying our respect to the dead, especially among farming and rural families. Those who lived in the south used to parade from their houses to the cemetery during this night and prepare a feast with tons of food and drinks, so that those who have passed could enjoy a meal during the eve of their festivity. People from Puglia would even leave some food in their houses, like chestnuts and boiled potatoes, because in that period of the year their deceased ancestors would visit them until Christmas Eve.

In conclusion, the tradition and importance of Halloween vary greatly among countries that observe it, but the main element that makes it the scariest night of the whole year is definitely the presence of a supernatural and spooky atmosphere, whether you are wearing a scary mask to go to a party, watching a horror movie or visiting a haunted house just for fun.