Halloween Past and Present: With Lessons and Resources for Teachers

By Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction
The month of October can be very exciting! It is that time of year where fall is in full bloom, the days are not too hot and we all have a good excuse to drink hot chocolate, warm apple cider and pumpkin spice coffee. But most importantly, it is time for Halloween celebrations! From my childhood to this day I have always enjoyed Halloween. It is a time for warmer, cozier clothing, family fun and an excuse to eat lots of sweets. With the Halloween holiday approaching I thought that I would explore some of the history of the holiday and its origins, as well as provide some lesson plan resources for teachers.  

History
Halloween (Sometimes less commonly called Hallowe’en) is a celebration observed in many countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Saints’ Day. Historically the holiday has also been called All Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve.   

On the Christian liturgical calendar Halloween is the beginning of All Hallowtide, which is the time period dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful that have departed. Scholars disagree on some aspects of Halloween’s origins. One theory is that many of the holiday’s traditions have pagan roots. That it was influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival called Samhain. Other scholars take it a bit further and suggest that the pagan festival “Samhain may have been Christianized as All Hallow’s Day, along with its eve, by the early Church.” Other historians hold a sort of opposite view and argue that Halloween began solely as a Christian holiday, being the vigil of All Hallow’s Day, to honor the dearly departed saints.

Halloween Comes to North America
The Irish and Scottish celebrated Halloween for centuries, and ultimately immigrants took many of the popular customs to North America in the 19th century. The holiday then spread throughout the US and by the mid twenty century Halloween evolved into what we know it today. Traditions that make up the Halloween in the US include “Halloween parties, dress up, trick-or-treating (or the related guising and souling from Europe), divination games, pin the tail on the donkey, pumpkin carving or turnip carving (More so in Europe historically), making jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling ghost stories, and watching horror films. Less popular is the tradition where some Christians observe All Hallows’ Eve. In this tradition people attend church services and light candles on the graves of the dead saints and loved ones, a practice some theologians consider more pagan and less Christian. Historically, Christians have abstained from eating meat on All Hallows’ Eve, observing the tradition by eating certain vegetarian foods such as soul cakes, pancakes, potatoes or apples.

Halloween in the Classroom
When it comes to getting students involved in the holiday celebrations one perhaps has the idea that Halloween themes can only be integrated into elementary classrooms. However, there are activities that students of all ages can do for Halloween, because children as well as adults love to celebrate the season. Elementary teachers can engage in traditional activities such as wearing costumes to school, to trick or treating between various classrooms. Middle and high school students can also dress up, but can also engage in other more age appropriate activities such as creating short documentary horror films based on the subject matter being taught (I.e creating a science fiction or historic film with a horror theme or bringing Edgar Allen Poe’s work to life). Other ideas for older students include researching the witchcraft trials, unpacking historic myths like werewolves, witches or vampires, or baking Halloween treats for the class. Below we have included some lesson plans and teaching resources for teachers to help students explore engaging ways to celebrate the holiday.    

Halloween Lesson Plans and Resources
Halloween Lesson Plans for Elementary
30 Halloween Activities for Kids: Creative and Fun Classroom Ideas!
40 Lesson Plans for Various Grade Levels
Elementary Halloween Activities for Various Subjects
Halloween Lesson Ideas from Eductaion World
Halloween Party Alternatives from UNICEF
6 Halloween Lesson Plans to Try in the Classroom
Halloween Activities for Middle Grades
High School Halloween Activity
Move Over Halloween — Here Comes Historical Figure Day
Vampires: Fact or Fiction?
Goosebumps in the Classroom: Now That You Have Their Attention

8 Comments

  1. I chose this article because I feel that Halloween was a favorite part of my childhood and I cannot wait to implement that into my future classroom. l grew up catholic so Halloween was celebrated a significantly different when I was in grade school compared to my public high school. I feel that celebrating Halloween is incredibly beneficial for children because it gives them a sense of history as well as fun in the classroom,. The parties and the overall break was something that I also looked forward as kid, which I feel is important. Giving kids the ability to have something to look forward to and celebrate in the classroom is incredibly beneficial.

  2. What originally drew me to read this article was that its topic was on the history of Halloween, which happens to be my favorite holiday to celebrate throughout the year but is also the one I know little about historically within American culture. It was interesting how the origin of Halloween is debated by historians – the debate of whether Halloween was a set-in place to replace the pagan holiday of Samhain, that Halloween is the same as Samhain but just Christianized into the church, or Halloween being an original Christian holiday practiced was fascinating.

    I also found it interesting how Halloween came to North America. I had no idea that it was brought over by Scottish and Irish immigrants – I had no idea that Halloween was even of Celtic tradition! I also never heard of some of the Halloween traditions such as carving turnips, attending church services to place candles on grave, and abstaining from meat (the last one really surprised me).

    The last section of incorporating Halloween into the classroom was something that I enjoyed too. At my high school, we really did not celebrate Halloween – it was just another day to us which made the day seem boring. Our lack of celebration stemmed from thinking Halloween was not age appropriate to celebrate it as we did in middle and elementary school. I really enjoyed the suggestions of having age-appropriate activities for high school level students and they will be considered when I start teaching.

  3. I chose to read this article because Halloween is one of my favorite holidays (even though it is technically not a holiday). Even though I am in my 20’s I still very much enjoy celebrating Halloween. This article reminded me of the fun activities I used to do with my students when I was a preschool gymnastics teacher. I loved to do fun games based on age groups. For example, I would do halloween themed relay-races for the older students (6+) and I would do simpler games like mummy wrapping or a trick-or-treat game for my younger students. I also would build a haunted house out of mats and the kids loved going through it. I am now a preschool teacher at a daycare and I cannot wait to do fun halloween themed activities with my new students!

  4. I’m grateful that the author provided this interesting and educational overview of Halloween-related activities. The warm recollections and excitement for the season—from the delight of the comfortable fall air to the excitement of Halloween festivities—are incredibly touching to read about. The historical insights into the origins of Halloween add depth to the narrative, highlighting the festival’s connections to All Saints’ Day and its potential pagan roots. It’s fascinating to see how traditions have evolved over time and how they’ve been passed down through generations. Your mention of Halloween’s journey to North America, particularly through Irish and Scottish celebrations, provides a rich cultural context. The story of Halloween’s development in the US, including the emergence of customs such as trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving, provides a clear picture of the holiday’s current state. Furthermore, I admire that you acknowledged the variety of ways that individuals celebrate Halloween, whether they involve customary customs or more contemporary, artistic pursuits.

  5. I wanted to read this article since this holiday just passed. I remember always celebrating Halloween in elementary school. We always passed out candy, got to dress up in our costumes, and watch Charlie Brown. Now, a lot of us go to friends house, pass out candy, or stay in to watch scary movies. It was interesting reading the history behind this famous holiday because we tend to forget the true meaning it. I found it fascinating on how different religions celebrate this holiday.

  6. I enjoyed this article because it provided insight on the history of the holiday. A lot of people lose sight of the original meaning behind the holiday, and just see it as an excuse to dress up, eat candy, and more. While it’s great to allow fun on the special day, it can still be beneficial to know the history and context of what you are actually celebrating. I also enjoy how this article provided additional resources and ideas for teachers to use. This allows aspiring educators like myself to have a head start and get inspired about future activities and plans within our own classroom.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article, I think it’s a great resource for teachers. It discusses the history of Halloween and involving students in the classroom. As I prepare to become a teacher, I always like to see more resources especially regarding fun activities. Teaching is not only about the curriculum, but creating relationships with kids and making learning fun. Holidays like Halloween give teachers a chance to have fun with their students.

  8. Halloween, which is widely celebrated in the United States takes place on the eve of all saint’s day, an important catholic holiday. Halloween is the beginning of All Hallowtide, which is considered the time dedicated to remembering the dead, including the saints (also known as hallows – hints the name Halloween). Halloween arrived to North American in the 19th century, and in our present day, we carve pumpkins, partake in apple bobbing, and light bonfires to celebrate the holiday. Children often trick or treat as well. Halloween is quite celebrated like a party in elementary schools, but many teachers will incorporate works by Edgar Allen Poe during this time to allow for a nice change of content for Halloween. Overall, This article gives a great depiction of the history of Halloween, and how it can be a learning opportunity in school districts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*