Halloween — the ‘scariest’ festival of the year
It’s that time of year where the nights are drawing in, and the pumpkins and costumes are coming out. Halloween is a hugely popular festivity in the US, when adults and children alike dress up and join the fun. But what’s the history behind this spooky holiday and how is Halloween celebrated in the US today?
What’s the story of Halloween?
Halloween’s history stretches back two millennia. Originally, it was a pagan festival, Samhain, celebrated by the Celts on November 1st. This festival marked the end of the harvest period and was essentially the Celtic New Year. But at the turn of the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead was broken down, and troublesome spirits could enter the human world. During Samhain, the Celts would construct bonfires, light lanterns to guide good spirits, and carve faces into vegetables and dress in animal skins to confuse and scare evil spirits.

After the Romans conquered the Celts, many pagan festivities were combined with the Roman holiday calendar. Rome later converted to Christianity, and the pagan/Roman celebration became known as All Soul’s Day (or All Hallows Day). It was a day to honor the dead. Celebrations started to take place on the day before the holiday – October 31st. And so, this festival became known as All Hallows Eve. In short – Halloween.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and European immigrants began bringing their traditions across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. Although the strict Protestant Church opposed it, the celebration of Halloween in the US was here to stay. It was especially celebrated in the southern US. Halloween became even more popular when millions of Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine celebrated Halloween to bring their community together.
Halloween soon lost its religious connotations, and became a secular celebration between family and friends. People threw parties, played games, and dressed up in imaginative costumes. By the 1930s, Halloween was widely celebrated throughout the US.
How is Halloween celebrated in the US today?
Halloween parties
Kids and adults enjoy Halloween parties every year! People wear unusual costumes, share food and drink, and play games. Although Halloween is observed on October 31st, parties are usually held on the closest weekend if Halloween falls on a weekday.

Common activities at Halloween parties in the US include:
Apple bobbing
A large bucket is filled with water, and apples are placed in. With their hands tied, party guests dunk their heads into the water and pick up the floating apples using their teeth. It’s harder than it looks! Apple bobbing is said to originate from a Roman holiday honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees.
Pumpkin carving
Also known as Jack-o-Lanterns, carved pumpkins are one of the main symbols of Halloween. The practice of carving a lantern from a vegetable was brought to the US by Irish immigrants.

How do you carve a pumpkin? First, remove the top of the pumpkin (be careful, you’ll need it later). Next, scoop the seeds and flesh from the inside of the pumpkin. Draw your design on the pumpkin and carefully cut it out. When you’re finished, put a candle inside and replace the top of the pumpkin!
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Fortune telling
Do you want to know your future? Fortune telling is a traditional part of Halloween, when the boundaries between the real world and spirit world were supposed to be blurred. Historic fortune telling methods included some strange rituals and myths. For example – it is said that if you eat a salted fish in three bites, the image of your future spouse will appear in your dreams. Today, fortune telling is done with tarot cards or crystal balls.
No Halloween party is complete without a costume! However, your costume doesn’t have to be scary. According to Google, the most popular Halloween costumes in the US in 2019 included: clowns, dinosaurs, and witches…as well as unicorns and 1980s aerobics! Scary, right?

To better understand Halloween party costumes in the US, watch the famous scene in the movie Mean Girls. This is a cult movie from 2004 about a home-schooled teenager Cady who enters a typical American high school. Cady has never been to a Halloween party before, and arrives in a terrifying Bride of Dracula costume. Little does she know that for most girls, their Halloween costumes look a little different.
A Halloween party without decorations is like a nightclub without music. Aside from pumpkins, popular decorations include bats, skeletons, spiders, black cats, witches’ hats, and cauldrons.
Trick or treat
As a kid, trick or treating is one of the most exciting parts of Halloween in the US! Going from house to house with your friends, wearing costumes, causing mischief, and – of course – collecting candy. Trick or treating probably originates from All Soul’s Day celebrations in England. Poor families would beg for food, and richer citizens would give them ‘soul cakes’. In exchange, the poor families would pray for their dead relatives.
Halloween horror movies
There’s no better time to watch a scary movie than on the spookiest day of the year! Popular Halloween movies in the US are:
  • The Halloween franchise
  • Friday the 13th
  • Nightmare on Elm Street
More family-friendly films include:
  • Hocus Pocus
  • The Nightmare before Christmas
  • The Addams Family
Did you know? If you have nerves of steel, you can visit a Halloween attraction at a special haunted house or theme park. A word of warning: this is not for the faint-hearted. These events are designed to be as scary as possible, with horrifying decorations and expert actors to terrify visitors. Some are so scary, that visitors must sign a waiver before they enter!
As Halloween was traditionally a pagan festivity and celebration of the dead, it does have a bad reputation among some people. Some Christians believe that celebrating Halloween is ungodly as it focuses on themes of death, witchcraft, and evil. Some even call it a ‘devil’s holiday’.

Every year around Halloween in the US, there is hysteria about dangerous treats being given to unsuspecting children. Razorblades hidden in sweets, candy containing drugs, poisoned cupcakes… these scary stories are shared by thousands of concerned parents on social media. Luckily, experts have shown that these stories are just urban legends. (Maybe the real danger of Halloween is diabetes and childhood obesity?)

So, now you know how to celebrate Halloween like a real American! If you want to speak like a real American too, then look no further than Manhattan English.
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