Halloween captivates us with its eerie ambiance and haunting traditions, but have you ever been curious about how these customs came to be? In this series, we will delve into the origins and significance of 43 fascinating Halloween traditions.
From ancient rituals to contemporary festivities, each tradition holds a story that has contributed to making Halloween the spine-tingling celebration we know and love today. So, brace yourselves as we embark on a journey to uncover the hidden tales behind the traditions that define Halloween’s spooky splendor.
Trick-or-treating is the classic Halloween tradition that is beloved by children and parents alike; the first trick-or-treat in North America was recorded in 1911 in Ontario, Canada.
Trick-or-treating comes to us from the Celts, who celebrated Samhain about the same time as we celebrate Halloween.
It eventually came about that they would dress up (going “guising”) and go door-to-door, singing songs or performing some other small act.
In return, they would receive treats. It’s easy to see how this Celtic tradition gradually transformed into the trick-or-treating we know and love today.
After all, who doesn’t love getting dressed up in costume and going from house to house, asking for candy?
Plus, these days, if you’re lucky, you’ll hit up a house that’s giving out full-size candy bars!
2. Carving Pumpkins
Did you know that pumpkin carving was brought to the U.S. by Scots and Irish settlers – and that they originally carved turnips?
There is a whole myth behind where Jack-O’-Lanterns come from, but eventually, it became a tradition for the Celts to carve out a turnip or other root vegetable with a face.
The jack-o’-lantern would then be put out on the windowsill or porch to ward off evil spirits who might be roaming during Samhain.
Today, pumpkin carving is undoubtedly one of the most popular Halloween traditions; families hold special nights for it, and people hold BYOP (bring your own pumpkin) carving parties.
If you’re really good, you can enter into a pumpkin carving contest – and maybe even win a little prize money.
3. Wearing Costumes
Costumes are another tradition that comes to us from the Celtic settlers; they believed that spirits could walk among the living, and they wanted to confuse any evil ones.
These days, you can walk into any Spirit Halloween and walk out with an amazing look.
Or, if you’re old school, you can make your costume and/or thrift it, putting together pieces like a puzzle.
For grade-school-age kids, there is wearing costumes to school and having the costume parade around the gym, and for adults, there are Halloween parties.
4. Haunted Houses
Whether you’re making a haunted house out of your own home or visiting an amateur or professional one, nothing scares the heebie-jeebies out of people quite like it.
Some people devote hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars each year to turning their property into a haunted house, and they often do it just for the love of Halloween (or to benefit charity).
Why do people so love being scared? I have no idea, but at Halloween, nothing touches a great haunted house – especially one with cameras to capture the screaming moments!
5. Bobbing For Apples
Yet another tradition from the Celts, they actually borrowed this one from an older crowd – the Ancient Romans!
There is nothing quite like dunking your face into a keg of water and trying to grasp onto an apple with your teeth – and there is nothing quite like the victory of the moment you succeed!
6. Halloween Parades
Halloween parades might be as simple as the costume parade at your child’s elementary school (oh, the pictures that you will cherish!).
Or they might be as elaborate as a full-on community parade, marching down main street, complete with floats.
If it’s the latter, grab your little ones and some chairs and settle in for a show – and don’t forget to bring something to collect all the candy!
7. Ghost Stories
Once the sun goes down and the campfire starts burning hot and high, the ghost stories can begin.
Spook each other out with gruesome, creepy, scary stories of ghastly ghouls (or keep it tame if you have kids who aren’t quite ready for that level).
Hold a contest to see who can tell the spookiest ghost story – and make sure no one sleeps that night!
8. Watching Horror Movies
While many older horror movies are actually quite campy for today’s audiences, there are plenty of films throughout the years that are truly scary, and people have been loving them for decades.
From Nosferatu to Hereditary, Let the Right One In, to the original Halloween, there is a horror flick for every age and taste.
9. Halloween Parties
Halloween parties are a great tradition, whether it’s a house party, a party at a bar, or even just a kid’s sleepover with pizza, Hocus Pocus, and treat bags.
If you’re looking to host one, you can decorate your house to be spooky, get a great costume, and go super creative with the food table.
There is something so magical about a night around a bonfire, particularly on a starry, moonlit night, with a few friends and some adult beverages.
It’s especially fun when it’s around Halloween, and the air is crisp with the impending winter, and you can tell ghost stories to freak each other out for the drive home.
Autumnal bonfires are actually another tradition borrowed from the Celts, who celebrated Samhain by lighting special fires and performing rituals around them.
11. Visiting Graveyards
If you live in an area that’s especially old, chances are good that there’s at least one graveyard that has tombstones dating back a few hundred years.
Visiting those graveyards and checking out the tombstones is a fine Halloween tradition that mixes a love of history with a love of the spooky.
If you’re in a particularly historical location, like Charleston, SC, you can also find guided or self-guided graveyard tours.
These chilling tours are full of ghost stories and real-life horror tales about the people who are buried there.
12. Baking Soul Cakes
If you’ve never heard of the tradition of baking soul cakes, you’re in for a treat. It’s a small, round biscuit-like patty that’s made with spices to commemorate the dead.
After all, Halloween is named after All Hallows’ Eve, or the night when the souls of the dead walk among the living.
These used to be handed out to “soulers” – forerunners of trick-or-treaters. Today, you can make them for your family and friends.
13. Playing Pranks
Because Halloween was traditionally thought of as a time when the spirits of the dead could walk among the living, a certain amount of hijinks were to be expected.
You can carry on that heritage by playing pranks on your friends and family around this time of year – just make sure they’re light-hearted and funny versus mean-spirited and cruel.
14. Reading Tarot Cards
Tarot cards are firmly in the camp of the occult, and since Halloween is a time for all things supernatural, it’s fitting that you would have your cards read around this season.
You can actually have a professional medium read your tarot cards, or you can ask a practicing friend. Either way, your present issues and future happiness will surely be addressed.
15. Apple Peeling Fortune Telling
This is such a fun tradition, which comes to us by way of the 19th century.
A young person would peel an apple, toss the peel on the ground, and then make divinations about what letters the peel would curl into.
The letters would be interpreted as initials for the person the peeler would end up entering into a relationship with – or even marrying!
16. Attending A Zoo Boo
Most city zoos hold Halloween-themed nights during the month of October, with trick-or-treating, special “spooky” animal exhibits (tarantulas anyone?), and crafts.
If your zoo has a train, they might even put on a haunted train ride for the kids and adults alike.
I can remember my parents taking me to a Zoo Boo, and the tradition continues as I take my kids to the very same one!
17. Crafting Scarecrows
Scarecrows got their association with Halloween by way of the harvest, which was collected around late October and which these humanoid figures would watch over.
Today, you can make scarecrows – cute or creepy, your choice – with a pair of overalls and a flannel, an old pillowcase, and some straw for stuffing.
18. Lighting Candles For The Deceased
The Catholic church believes that lighting candles for the dead amplifies the prayers being said for people’s souls.
You can achieve this same effect in your own home around Halloween, a time when the spirits of the dead are said to join the living.
You can create a special altar for your deceased by setting up pictures and candles on a table, setting up candles around their gravestone, or lighting candles in a church.
19. Using Ouija Boards
If you haven’t used an Ouija board during a childhood sleepover – and completely freaked yourselves out – you haven’t lived!
As adults, you can grab your friends, open a bottle of wine, and gather around the supernatural board game – and vehemently deny that you’re the one moving the planchette.
First released in the 1890s by Elijah Bond, Ouija boards gained popularity during World War I.
However, play at your own risk; most Christian churches decry the use of Ouija boards as practicing Satanism and believe it can lead to demonic possession!
20. Hosting Costume Contests
If you’re a teacher with a classroom of children or simply a fun-loving adult who enjoys throwing parties, you can host one of the grandest Halloween traditions: a costume contest.
Encourage guests to show up decked out to the nines and perhaps gather some prizes – gift cards always do the trick – for the winners.
You could also have superlative-style winners, like “Best Couples’ Costume” and “Most Creative Costume.”
21. Halloween Dance Events
If you’re a school administrator or simply someone who loves Halloween and dancing, you can host a Halloween party where the focus is on cutting loose on the dance floor.
Want to encourage lots of boogying? Make sure the music is on point and hold a dance-off while you’re at it!
22. Making Halloween Crafts
There are so many lovely traditions to help you fill your home with Halloween spirit, and making crafts is certainly one of them.
Particularly if you have kids, doing any number of Halloween crafts together means spending precious time in each other’s company – and it keeps the boredom at bay.
23. Setting Up Halloween Decorations
For many, setting up their Halloween decorations at the beginning of October – or even earlier – is a tradition that welcomes in the holiday and fall in general.
Make some warm mulled apple cider, light a pumpkin pie candle, and spend an afternoon setting everything up just-so. Bonus points if you get your kids involved and help!
You can really top off the experience by baking some pumpkin cookies that are ready when you’re done decorating.
24. Listening To Halloween-themed music
While there may not be as many Halloween-themed songs as there are Christmas-themed songs, the holiday still doesn’t do so badly.
You can decorate to them, carve pumpkins, play them at a party, or even play the songs in your car as you run errands – all of which will get you into the Halloween mindset and spirit.
25. Making Candy Apples
Candy apples have long been an autumn tradition, with the apple harvest falling around roughly the same time as Halloween.
You can make them at home – all you need is light corn syrup, sugar, and red food dye, plus popsicle sticks for handles.
There are tons of recipes online, and while your dentist might despair, these sticky, sweet treats are a true Halloween delight.
26. Trick-Or-Treat Bags Crafting
If your kids have “old souls,” they’ll probably jump at the opportunity to make their own trick-or-treat bags.
You can use pillowcases as your base or even sew together a simple bag made of two pieces of cloth (plus a handle).
If your kids are sewing (or learning), they can sew on patches or shapes made out of fabric; if not, you can iron on embellishments.
27. Playing The “Mischief Night” Or “Devil’s Night”
Did you know that “Mischief Night” is actually first referenced all the way back in 1790 in England?
Since then, it has become synonymous with a night of pranks, jokes, partying, and even some light vandalism (think toilet papering someone’s house).
You and your teen or tween can participate in a sanitized version of Mischief Night, also called Devil’s Night in the Great Lakes region, by engaging in some harmless pranks.
28. Participating in “Zombie Walks”
Zombie walks are like parades – except filled with people dressed up as the undead, who stagger down the street like the horror film villains they are.
Check out your local community social media for any zombie walks that might be taking place, and if there aren’t any – why not start one?
It could become a community tradition every Halloween! You’ll marvel at how creative people can get; zombie-watching is even better than people-watching.
29. Creating “Boo Bags” Or “Ghosting” Neighbors
The tradition of boo bags and “ghosting” neighbors is relatively new, though it echoes some of the earlier Celtic traditions surrounding neighbors.
The idea is that you make up a bag of goodies for the kids of the house and leave it on your neighbor’s porch anonymously.
For a fun twist, you can also “ghost” your neighbors by actually ringing the doorbell and fleeing before they answer it (although this only works if they don’t have a Ring doorbell!).
30. Making Graveyard Cakes Or Other Spooky Desserts
Graveyard cakes are cute desserts where the surface of the cake is turned into a mini-graveyard, decorated with cookies for tombstones, as well as other festive candy.
You usually use brown frosting to represent the dirt, and then you can decorate the tombstone-shaped cookies with “RIP” or simple crosses.
You could also make ghost cupcakes – where the frosting on top of the cupcake serves as the “body” of the ghost – or Frankenstein cookies decorated to look like Frankenstein’s monster.
31. Creating Homemade Masks
Nothing is quite as terrifying as the Halloween costumes of old, so channel a little of that horror into making homemade masks with your kids.
You can go the truly old-fashioned route and make them out of papier-mâché (these are truly the creepiest), or if your kids are younger, go the cute route and use paper or fabric.
If you’re hosting a Halloween party, this is a terrific activity to have set up for the kids.
32. Attending Or Holding A “Murder Mystery” Party
Halloween is a time for spooky, ghoulish doings, like murder – at least, fictionalized murder and the most fun way to pass an evening is with a murder mystery party.
If you’re hosting, you can actually buy kits for holding the party.
But if you’re just attending – and local theater groups can put these on, complete with dinner in some cases – you can sit just back and enjoy the whodunnit.
33. Participating In Halloween-Themed Escape Rooms
If your city has escape rooms, then chances are good that they will hold special Halloween events that you can attend.
Grab your family or a group of friends and spend the evening finding clues, making connections, and breaking out of the room you’re stuck in – all with a Halloween twist.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly escape room option, there are loads of at-home DIY plans, too!
34. Creating And Following A Halloween Scavenger Hunt
If you live somewhere where it stays warmer into October, you could totally participate in the Halloween tradition of an outdoor-themed scavenger hunt for your littles (or for adults!).
Make a list of spooky items that can be collected or photographed – like a tombstone from the 1800s, a black cat, someone in a zombie costume, or candy corn, etc.
Assign points, with greater points going to more difficult items to find; at the end of a prescribed time period, the person or team with the most points wins a prize.
35. Making And Drinking Witches’ Brew Or Other Themed Drinks
On Halloween night, treat yourself and your family or friends to some witches’ brew potions – actually drinkable beverages that just look spooky (but actually taste great).
If you can, serve them up out of a cauldron – or perhaps everyone could get their own mini-cauldron? – using a ladle, and be seen whispering spells over the brew.
36. Crafting DIY Tombstones For Yard Decorations
You can make DIY tombstones to stick in your yard, and, best of all, because you made them at home, you can personalize them however you like!
You’ll just need foam sheets, some spray paint, and a serrated bread knife, plus any extra decoration or embellishment you want for your gravestone.
Make up funny or creepy names or riffs off of your own names, and be sure to include an epitaph.
Then you can stick them out in your front lawn; you can follow these instructions for securing the tombstones in place so they don’t fly away.
37. Organizing Or Attending A Halloween Potluck
Whether for an office of employees or just friends and family, you can’t go wrong with a Halloween potluck, especially if everyone brings a dish that’s on theme.
In addition to the food itself, put up (or offer to help put up, if you’re not hosting) Halloween decorations, that way, everyone is in the right frame of mind to enjoy their meal.
You can play Halloween music (there are tons of playlists) and then even participate in fun Halloween games once everyone is done eating.
38. Playing Flashlight Tag In The Dark
A fun game for the summer season, flashlight tag can be enjoyable during the autumn, too, especially if the participants dress up in costume for it.
What could be funnier than seeing Mario or Dracula get taken out by someone wearing a princess or disco queen outfit?
As always, the rules are if you get touched by the flashlight beam, you’re the new “it”; you can also play in teams.
39. Participating In A Halloween-Themed Photo Booth
If the Halloween party you’re attending has a photo booth, you should, by all means, take part in it!
You’ll get three or four shots to take the funniest picture, in costume and with additional props; plus, you get a keepsake photo clipping to remember the night by.
40. Attending A “Day of the Dead” Celebration Or Parade
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that normally takes place on November 1, though it has been known to be celebrated earlier, like on Halloween.
The beautiful colors and textures of Day of the Dead celebrations and parades are a nod to the joyful nature of the holiday – no sad, solemn remembrances here.
If you get the chance to participate in a Day of the Dead activity, take it – the food, the warmth, and the gorgeous costumes are all uniquely Mexican.
41. Creating A Halloween Time Capsule To Open The Following Year
Time capsules are great ways to remember what came before and to appreciate how far you’ve come.
You can place this year’s mask, some trendy candy, an invitation to a Halloween party, and more inside your time capsule (a box will do) and then seal it up for next year.
If you want to go old school, you can actually bury it in your backyard, but sticking it in the back of a closet works, too.
42. Hosting A Pumpkin Pie Baking Contest
Each contestant will bake a pie in their own home to bring to the party (well, contest, but it’s really just a party to eat pie!).
You’ll line up the pies on a long table, each accompanied by an index card folded in half, with the name of the baker on the inside.
Once everyone has tasted all the pies, you’ll vote; the person with the most votes wins the contest – but actually, you’ve all won because you got to taste so many pies!
You could also expand this to being an “autumn pie” contest so that people can bake apple, pecan, sweet potato, or even raisin pies.
43. Playing The “Dark House” Game
If you’re feeling really brave, you can play the Dark House game – where each person, or team of two, enters a house purported to be haunted and spends time inside.
The kicker? They can only take a single flashlight as they explore the interior.
The person or team who spends the longest time inside the house wins.
If there are no haunted houses in your area, you can also play in a spooky attic or basement.