The Specific Customs of Halloween and Pagan Beliefs

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
Since Halloween itself originated with paganism, it is hardly surprising that its customs are related to pagan belief. The authors give background for the jack-o’-lantern, costuming, trick-or-treat, and telling ghost stories.


Since Halloween itself originated with paganism, it is hardly surprising that its customs are related to pagan belief. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic Festival of Samhain was observed on October 31, at the end of summer…. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats, fairies and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes.[1]

Halloween symbols, customs and practices undoubtedly have had a variety of influences upon them historically. For example, in early American history Halloween was not practiced nor is it primarily an English or Protestant holiday. It was not widely observed until the twentieth century. Initially, it was only practiced in small Irish Catholic settlements until thousands of Irishmen migrated here during the great potato famine and brought their customs with them. To some degree, our modern Halloween is an Irish holiday in origin going back to the Celtic festival. (Ireland is the only place in the world where Halloween is actually a national holiday.) Coincidentally, the rise in popularity of Halloween in America coincides roughly with the national spiritist revival that began in 1848.[2]

Among the modern customs and practices of Halloween, we note the following probable or possible influences.

The Jack-o’-lantern

The carved pumpkin may have originated with the witches’ use of a skull with a candle in it to light the way to coven meetings. But among the Irish, who, as noted, prompted the popularization of Halloween in America, the legend of “Irish Jack” explains the jack-o’-lantern. The legend goes: There was a stingy drunk named Jack who tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree for an apple but then cut the sign of a cross into the trunk of the tree preventing the devil from coming down. Jack forced the devil to swear he would never come after Jack’s soul. The devil reluctantly agreed. Jack eventually died but was turned away at the gates of heaven because of his drunkenness and life of selfishness. He was next sent to the devil who also rejected him, keeping his promise. Since Jack had no place to go, he was condemned to wander the earth. As he was leaving hell, the devil threw a live coal at him. He put the coal inside a turnip he had been eating, and has since forever been roaming the earth with his “jack-o’-lantern” in search of a place to rest. Eventually, pumpkins replaced turnips since it was much easier to symbolize the devil’s coal inside a pumpkin.

Trick-or-Treat and Halloween Costumes

There are several possibilities for the origin of this pastime. One is from the idea that witches allegedly had to steal the materials needed for their festivals. The ancient Druids may have believed that witches held this day to be special, something clearly true for modern witches.

The idea of trick-or-treating is further related to the ghosts of the dead in pagan, and even Catholic, history. For example, among the ancient Druids, “The ghosts that were thought to throng about the houses of the living were greeted with a banquet-laden table. At the end of the feast, masked and costumed villagers representing the souls of the dead paraded to the outskirts of town leading the ghosts away.”[3]

As noted, Halloween was a night where mischievous and evil spirits roamed freely. As in modern poltergeist lore, mischievous spirits could play tricks on the living—so it was advantageous to “hide” from them by wearing costumes. Masks and costumes were worn to either scare away the ghosts or keep from being recognized by them: “In Ireland especially, people thought that ghosts and spirits roamed after dark on Halloween. They lit candles or lanterns to keep the spirits away, and if they had to go outside, they wore costumes and masks to frighten the spirits or to keep from being recognized by these unearthly beings.”[4]

Halloween masks and costumes may also be related to the attempt to hide one’s attendance at pagan festivals or, as in traditional shamanism and other forms of animism, to change the personality of the wearer to allow for communication with the spirit world. Here, costumes could be worn to ward off evil spirits. Or the costume wearer might even absorb the power of the animal represented by the mask and costume worn. Thus, Halloween costumes may have originated with the Celtic Druid ceremonial participants who wore animal heads and skins to acquire the strength of the particular animal.

Another possible explanation for costuming originates with the medieval Catholic practice of displaying the relics of the saints on All Saints Day: “The poorer churches could not afford relics and so instituted a procession with parishioners dressed as the patron saints; the extras dressed as angels or devils and everyone paraded around the churchyard.”[5]

Going from door to door seeking treats may hail back to the Druid practice of begging material for the great bonfires. It is also related to the Catholic concept of purgatory and the custom of begging for a “soul cake.”[6]

As for the “trick” custom of Halloween, this is related to the idea that ghosts and witches create mischief on this particular night. For example, if the living did not provide food or “treats” for the spirits, then they would “trick” the living. People feared that terrible things might happen to them if they did not honor the spirits. The Druids also believed that failure to worship their gods would bring dire consequences: If the gods were not treated properly in ritual, they would seek vengeance. Further, some people soon realized that a mischievous sense of humor could be camouflaged—that they could perform practical jokes on others and blame it on the ghosts or witches roaming about.

Telling ghost stories

Because Halloween was a night where dead souls were believed to be everywhere, and good, mischievous and evil spirits roamed freely, the custom of telling ghost stories on Halloween originated as a natural consequence of such beliefs.


  1. Q. v., “Halloween,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Macropedia, vol. 4.
  2. See Becky Stevens Cordello, Celebrations (Butterick Publishing, 1977), p. 114.
  3. Robert J. Myers, Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1972), p. 260.
  4. Carol Barkin and Elizabeth James, The Holiday Handbook (New York: Clarion, 1994), p. 41
  5. Myers, p. 261.
  6. See our The Facts on Halloween (Harvest House Publishers, 1996) for treatment of this practice.

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