Halloween traditions: the ultimate guide

1 Oct 2022

Events Halloween

From pumpkin carving to trick or treat, where do Halloween traditions come from?

Dressing up as your favourite spooky character, munching on delicious Halloween chocolate, and scaring yourself silly with horror movies – that’s Halloween, right? Historically, not quite. Let’s explore the origins of All Hallows Eve and some of our favourite Halloween traditions. 

'Eat, drink, and be scary' Halloween sign beside a witch's broomstick

The history of Halloween

Although the Halloween we know and love today still adopts many of the old traditions, the earliest celebrations of Halloween were very different.

The holiday is said to have started with the Celts, who celebrated their New Year on the first of November. Typically, the end of October was known as the time when the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest.

On Halloween – known as Samhain to the Celts – they believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth to haunt the living. Many believed that Druid priests could commune with deceased souls to make predictions about the future. To mark the occasion, the Celts dressed up in animal-skin costumes and built large bonfires to keep them safe.

From this point, the Celtic celebration of Samhain has evolved over the years to the Halloween we know today. The Romans blended Samhain with their own Feralia celebration in late October, where they commemorated the passing of the dead.

Centuries later in the 9th century, the Christian Church created All Souls’ Day as a Church-sanctioned holiday on November 2nd. The day before that was All Saints’ Day, or All-Hallows. And so the night before was appropriately named All-Hallows Eve. From this term, we eventually got “Halloween”.

Ancient Halloween samhain celebration
Samhain celebration in Edinburgh, Scotland

The origins of Halloween traditions

From dressing up in costumes and trick or treating to carving pumpkins, the ways to celebrate Halloween are endless. But why do we do these activities?

Bobbing for apples

The process of apple bobbing involves filling a bucket with water, chucking in some apples, and taking turns to fish one out. The tricky bit? You need to use just your mouth – your hands are tied behind your back!

Indeed, there are several good stories behind this tradition.

When the Romans invaded Celtic territory in 43 A.D., they brought apples with them, as well as their own Gods. Pomona – the goddess of fruit and trees – bore the symbol of an apple. The Romans blended their celebration of Pomona with the Celtic Samhain ritual, which some believe explains the tradition of bobbing for apples.

As time went on, however, the apple bobbing tradition also became a way to find your future lover. Each apple was assigned to a man, and the women dunked their heads to find their future husband, biting down on his assigned apple and hoisting it out of the water in their teeth.

Now, it’s just a fun – and messy – way to get rid of excess apples and enjoy a silly activity at Halloween.

Costumes and trick or treating

Another complex history behind this one – the Celts believed that ghosts, fairies, and spirits came visiting on October 31st, and had to be appeased with food and drink. The Celts believed that this would protect them from the souls of the dead.

Later, in the 15th century, Christians used to share soul cakes (a cakey biscuit with a cross design) from October 31st to November 2nd. People – especially children – would visit houses and take soul cakes in return for prayers on the household’s behalf.

The wearing of costumes developed around the same time. Groups would dress up and travel house to house reciting poetry, acting out small plays, or singing songs in return for money, apples, or soul cakes.

Some groups threatened mischief if they didn’t receive payment – and thus the “trick” element was born.

Children in Halloween costumes trick or treating

Carving Pumpkins

Carving pumpkins into Jack O’Lanterns is a tradition that stems from an old Irish myth. According to the story, a character called Stingy Jack managed to trick the devil multiple times, making him promise not to claim his soul when he died.

When Stingy Jack did lose his life, the Devil couldn’t take his soul to hell. However, God wasn’t going to allow someone like Jack into heaven either. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal from hell and he began to roam the dark nights with just the coal to light his way. He put the burning ember into a hollowed-out turnip, and the Irish people began to refer to this phantom-like figure as Jack of the Lantern, which was shortened to Jack O’Lantern.

From Ireland, the tale spread to Scotland and England, and people carved out turnips, beetroot, and potatoes and put them in windows or near doors to scare away Jack and other evil spirits.

Of course, turnips and beetroots don’t adorn the steps of our homes on Halloween nowadays. It was only when European immigrants took the tradition to America that they started carving pumpkins instead.

We’ve taken to the pumpkin tradition here in the UK as well, as they’re much easier to hollow out and carve. Plus, you can use the insides to make a delicious pumpkin pie – a classic autumn dish.

Halloween costume ideas

Halloween parties almost always involve some sort of fancy dress. Although traditional Halloween costumes involve dressing up as scary ghosts, monsters, and vampires, any kind of fancy dress is acceptable nowadays.

This is good if you have an old fancy dress costume in the cupboard from a party, but we think it’s nice to be a little scary for that trick-or-treat outing.

The makeshift bat

Remember that broken black umbrella you shoved to the back of the cupboard? Dig it out and turn it into bat wings! All you need is to pin it to a black outfit and attach some ears to a headband to complete the look.

Wednesday Addams

If you’ve got hair that’s long enough to put into two braids, Wednesday Addams is another easy-but-effective costume. This character from The Addams Family film franchise is a pop culture reference that adults and kids of all ages will appreciate. Layer a black dress over a white shirt, add some pale face powder and a disapproving expression and you’re done!

Skeleton

A skeleton is a classic seasonal costume, and it’s easy to whip up. You can use white fabric paint to create a bone pattern on a black outfit or cut slits in a white t-shirt and put it over a black top for a more 3D look.

Either way, don’t skimp on the face paint – those eye sockets won’t shade themselves.

Children in skeleton outfits for Halloween

Halloween pumpkin carving ideas

A pumpkin may be easier to carve than a turnip, but it can still take a bit of practice. We’ve got some tips to help make pumpkin carving that little bit easier, as well as some great design ideas that will make sure yours stands out from the crowd.

Easy does it

First (and controversially), try slicing the bottom off, rather than the top. This way the pumpkin is less likely to cave in later on. If you’d rather just cut off the top, make sure you do it at a 45° angle, otherwise, the lid will just fall in.

Once you’ve scooped out all the seeds (try removing the pulp and roasting the seeds with a little salt for a tasty snack), sketch out your design on paper first, then draw the design on the pumpkin with a marker. Use a pointed, serrated knife to cut your design.

To stop your pumpkin from looking a little worse for wear after a couple of days on the porch, rub petroleum jelly on the fresh cuts. This will stop the moisture from escaping and keep it fresh-looking for longer. If you forget, you can soak the pumpkin in water for 8 hours instead, to rehydrate it.

Our favourite tip is to sprinkle a little cinnamon on the inside of your Jack O’Lantern. This way, when the candle heats up the inside, it will release a delicious autumnal spiced pumpkin smell.

Get creative

Don’t feel like you have to carve a scary face in your pumpkin – let your creative juices flow. Why not choose your favourite emoji, or carve a message in yours instead? If you’re a complete beginner but still want something that looks good, carve simple polka dots all over for a minimalist but stylish look.

Alternatively, if you’ve been curating your pumpkin face for months, why not give them a stylish new hairdo with some trailing plants?

Halloween craft ideas

If your kids (or you) are super excited about Halloween weeks before the big day, use that energy to make some Halloween craft decorations. Decking out your house with spooky additions is a great way to spend some quality time with your loved ones and get into the Halloween spirit.

  • Bat silhouettes. Use this bat stencil, some black card (or white paper), and lots of markers, and attach the bats upside down on some string. The sleeping bats will give an eerie silhouette to your windows for anyone walking by.
  • Cardboard monsters. If your autumnal colds have meant you’ve got empty boxes of tissues lying around the house, turn these into terrifying monsters. Paint them the colour of your choice and put them on their side – the hole can be the mouth and filled with paper cut-out teeth. Stick on a couple of googly eyes and maybe a horn or two and you’re ready to go.
  • All-seeing paper plate eyes. Turn white paper plates into oversized eyes by drawing a pupil and iris on them. Easy enough for young kids to master, hang them up around your front door to keep evil spirits away!

Halloween party food ideas

Halloween party food needs to be decadent, sweet, and – in our opinion – full of cacao. Party foods don’t have to be complicated, especially if you’ve got a hoard of little ones over for a party.

Get a pack of edible eyes and use melted chocolate (our chocolate Chocolate Gemstones are perfect for the job) to stick them on anything, from cookies to lollipops. The eyes will give them an appropriately ghoulish look.

Another simple, but effective, recipe is to whip up some egg whites and sugar into a meringue mix and pipe it into spooky shapes before baking. The kids will love these, and they make an excellent hot chocolate topping. For a seasonal drink, why not make some Pumpkin Spice Hot Chocolate for them to dip the meringues into? Our Velvetiser can whisk a velvety-smooth hot chocolate in just 2.5 minutes.

For a more savoury twist, mix cheese with store-bought puff pastry and slice them into sticks. Simply add a flaked almond fingernail – painted with the food colouring of your choice – and bake for a crispy, twisty witch’s finger.

Skeleton halloween party food

Halloween treats and gifts from Hotel Chocolat

Whatever your Halloween party plans, we hope you have a scarily good time. If you don’t have time to rustle up some homemade nibbles, then why not take a look at our Halloween treats?

From cute Yumpkins to Halloween H-Boxes and our grown-up Choose Your Poison collection, there’s something for everyone. Explore our full Halloween range.