By Richard Lederer, Part 1


Halloween is the year’s spookiest holiday. On October 31, we carve glowering faces on pumpkins, put on scary costumes, take our children trick-or-treating, and devour mouth-watering, calorie-laden goodies, which always go to waist.

Only on Halloween do parents encourage their kids to trespass on someone’s property, make a nonnegotiable demand, and take candy from strangers. One quarter of all the candy sold annually in the United States is purchased for Halloween. Chocolate, which in itself is a major food group, is by far the most popular confection, followed by candy corn.

Americans fork out nine billion dollars, second only to Christmas in consumer spending. One indication of that spending is that 20 percent of American dog owners buy costumes for their pets. In fact, I have a friend who dressed up his dog as a cat for Halloween. Now my friend can’t get his dog to come when he calls her.

One of our oldest holidays, Halloween finds its roots in ancient Ireland in the 5th century BCE. The observance signaled the end of the Celtic year and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. The Celts were farmers who worshipped nature. On this day, they observed Samhain, a festival that celebrated the final harvest and the storing of food for the winter ahead. People lit huge bonfires and donned costumes to ward off ghosts.

In time, the Roman Empire conquered the Celts and took over some of their beliefs as well. This included Samhain, which the Romans combined with their own festivals. Over the centuries, the holiday evolved from its pagan Irish origins, but the people did not forget the early customs. In the 8th century CE, Pope Gregory III introduced All Saints’ Day to replace the older festivals honoring the dead. The holiday, celebrated on November 1, was also known as All Hallows’ Day, a hallow being a saint or holy person. The preceding night was named All Hallows’ Eve, which has been shortened to Hallowe’en, and then to Halloween.

In the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, “huddled masses yearning to be free.” These fresh arrivals, especially the millions fleeing the Irish potato famine, helped popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.

A century ago, in 1920, Anoka, Minnesota, celebrated the first citywide Halloween with a costumed parade followed by treats for the revelers. The celebration was innovated by several civic organizations in an effort to divert the local youth from Halloween pranks, such as turning cows loose, soaping windows, and toppling outhouses. After that, it didn’t take long for Halloween to go nationwide. New York started observing Halloween in 1923 and Los Angeles in 1925.

You may well have heard the seasonal prey upon words “What do you call an empty hot dog?” Answer: A hollow weenie. But you may not have realized how expansive is the tricky treat bag of Halloween puns. There’s something about the lore of Halloween that inspires tour de farces at the highest level of punnery. The holiday is a veritable Bill of Frights.

To be continued next month in our November issue.


Dr. Richard Lederer is the author of more than 50 books about language, history and humor, including his newest books, “A Treasury of Halloween Humor” and “A Treasury of Christmas Humor.” To order signed copies, explore his website, or write him Richard Lederer at