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Halloween history for kids: 6 facts they should know

Discover how the pumpkins, costumes and candy came into play.
Photo collage of halloween symbolsJenny Chang-Rodriguez / TODAY / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Halloween hasn’t always been about costumes and candy. In fact, we have a traditional Celtic harvest festival to thank for our present-day celebration.

Lesley Bannatyne knows a thing or two about this.

“Before Halloween was horror, it was something else,” the Massachusetts-based writer told TODAY Parents. The author of five books has studied the holiday and its origins for more than 30 years.

Halloween history for kids

In celebration of this year’s big event, here are six facts she shared to teach the history of Halloween for kids:

1. When was Halloween first invented?

Halloween began in Europe. But it wasn’t called Halloween, it was called Samhain, and marked the beginning of winter, a superstitious time where spirits were set free.

“You can go back 2,000 years to Northwest Europe to find the very beginnings of Halloween,” Bannatyne said, sharing that Samhain means "summer’s end." “November first marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter. All those years ago, winter was a dark, dangerous time and [Samhain] was a time for everyone to get together to play games and eat food before winter.”

The holiday has always been celebrated this time of year.

In addition to Samhain, two religious-based holidays this time each year — All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day — helped to shape what we celebrate as Halloween today.

“This is a time when the spirits might be out,” Bannatyne said.

2. Before pumpkins, people carved turnips.

People carved pumpkin-like vegetables in Europe around this time of year as a way to remember souls that had passed and to welcome them home.

“In the late 19th century in Ireland, you’d carve a turnip and leave it in your window to represent the souls that passed by to remember them on All Souls Day,” Bannatyne explained. “When we discovered that (tradition) in this country, we had a ton of pumpkins in America. It was one of our first crops and carving a pumpkin is easier than carving a turnip. The idea could be replicated here more easily so hostesses carved pumpkins and used them as decorations.”

3. People have been wearing costumes for centuries.

For Halloween, costumes can be traced to the church holiday of All Hallows, also known as All Saints’ Day.

“All church holidays in Medieval times were incredibly important for charity,” Bannatyne said. “People would dress up and do little plays and perform for the richest homes, who would give them food and money. That evolved into people disguising themselves and getting more aggressive, going to homes insisting they give something to eat and drink.”

When the holiday came here to the U.S., costumes became more about disguising oneself to pull harmless pranks — things like painting windows and putting porch rocking chairs on rooftops.

4. Tricks came before treats.

“In 1820 or so, kids used to do something called pumpkin trick,” Bannatyne said, explaining that kids would find a pumpkin, carve a face into it, light it up with the stub of a candle, and hang it on a string outside the window of a local farmer. “You don't even have electricity then and you’re dozing in your house and all of a sudden this face appears at your window.”

5. Candy was introduced to the holiday to avoid vandalism.

As Halloween evolved, tricks turned more sinister and civic organizations tried to rid towns of mischief by gearing the holiday toward children.

“There was a big anti-vandalism push and individual home owners began to take on the effort,” Bannatyne said. “(As in), here’s some candy, don’t do anything to my house.”

6. Popular culture influenced trick-or-treating.

“Disney put out a Donald Duck cartoon, showing Huey, Dewey, and Louie trick-or-treating,” she shared. “It was sort of like a how-to — kids are going to come to your door; this is what you do.”

In the 1960s, UNICEF introduced a campaign that included kids going door-to-door for donations and candy, and the rest is history.

“It became un-American to not open your door,” Bannatyne explained. “By then it became universally accepted by everyone.”