What is Halloween? That depends who you ask, as the origins of Halloween—a holiday celebrated every year on October 31—are somewhat open to debate. The word “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hollows Even,” a phrase that indicates the day before All Hollows Day, or All Saints Day, a Catholic occasion honoring Christian saints. All Saints Day dates back to the Middle Ages and is celebrated on Nov. 1. By the medieval period, Christians had also begun celebrating All Souls Day on Nov. 2. According to scholars, many of the traditions we now associate with Halloween are connected to these two observances. Back in the day, for example, people would go door-to-door offering prayers for the dead. In exchange, they would receive treats, though they probably weren’t as tasty as Snickers.
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Halloween might also derive in part from the ancient Irish festival known as Samhain, although there is some disagreement regarding whether this pagan observance—which marked the transition from summer to winter—actually played a role in influencing what folks across the world now know as Halloween. The activity that is perhaps most closely linked to Halloween, trick-or-treating, didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1930s. Around the same time, mass-produced Halloween costumes began showing up in stores. The wearing of masks and other such getups also has its roots in ancient Europe, where people would wear costumes to disguise themselves from the souls of the dead—who, it was thought, would use the lead-up to All Saints Day to enact revenge on their enemies, according to Prince Sorie Conteh’s 2009 book Traditionalists, Muslims, and Christians in Africa: Interreligious Encounters and Dialogue.