The Poet and the Devil enter into a contract under the moon.

Photo: Kai Olsen


Creepy costumes, pumpkin lanterns and Halloween decorations have become a permanent tradition in many Danish families on 31 October. We shed some light on the long history of Halloween.

Like with so many other recent traditions, we have seemingly imported the celebration of Halloween straight from the United States. But where does the tradition really come from? Halloween originally has its roots in much older history and consists of elements from both Christianity as well as ancient northern European beliefs.

Read on as we go back to the old Irish tales of evil spirits and a man named Jack who has to travel between heaven and hell with a very special turnip lantern.

A bonfire burns in the night. Stars are seen in the background.
The Celtics celebrated Samhain by lighting a large bonfire to keep away evil spirits, witches and ogres. We also have this tradition in Denmark, but on St. Hans instead.

Photo: Wikimedia

The pagan Halloween

We find the first celebrations of what would later become Halloween very far back in history, namely in Irish folklore.

The pre-Christian Celts of Ireland celebrated a great feast called Samhain, which lasted several days in early November. Samhain was both a celebration of finishing the harvest and a celebration of the end of summer and the beginning of winter.

The Celts believed that those who had died during the year travelled to the realm of the dead under Samhain. The dead were thus particularly active these days and moved like spirits among the living. The light from a bonfire helped keep the evil spirits of the past away, which is why fire was an important part of the original tradition.

When the Celtic territories became Christian around the year 500, the church took over the holiday. Now the day was to remind the people of all the Christian martyrs and saints. Gone were the tales of witches, trolls and evil spirits.

The day was no longer allowed its pagan name, Samhain. Instead, the day should have a Christian name, that being 'All Hallow Even'. It eventually became the more idiomatic word we know today: Halloween.

Witch flies across a field on her broom. A black cat is sitting behind her and in front is a pumpkin head.
Postcard from the United States in the beginning of the 20th century.

Photo: Wikimedia

Across the Atlantic and back again

In the mid-19th century, thousands of Irish people fled to America due to the famine. Both the Irish and the Scots brought their traditions with them, including Halloween.

Since then, the custom spread and further developed, so that today it is one of the biggest holidays in the United States. Through newspaper articles, television and books, the tradition spread across the Atlantic once again, but in a new form. Now the evening is celebrated almost like a carnival with terrifying costumes, spooky door decorations, fireworks and trick and treating.

As we in the Western world have moved further and further away from the Christian traditions, the pagan origins of Halloween have been allowed to re-enter the tradition. Now witches, ghosts and all sorts of creepy costumes are haunting the streets for Halloween again. The children go from house to house in their neighbourhood and threaten "trick or treat!"

"Although the American celebration of Halloween may seem far from the Samhain of the Celts, there are still some clear recurrences. We find this in the contrast between darkness and light, among other things. Even though we no longer light bonfires, light in the form of pumpkin lanterns are still an important part of the tradition," says Caroline Nyvang, senior researcher at Royal Danish Library's folklore archives.

But why do we hollow out and carve scary faces into innocent pumpkins for Halloween these days?

Black and white photo of two boys putting up pumpkin lanterns for Halloween.
Photo from the American Book of Halloween, 1919, where two boys put up pumpkin lanterns on the roof of their house to frighten passers-by and to keep away evil spirits.

Photo: Book of Halloween/Wikimedia

Why do we carve pumpkins for Halloween?

In Denmark, carved pumpkin lanterns on the doorstep have become a regular sight around Halloween within the last 20 years. But the tradition is actually much older than that. There are records from the last 100 years from various Danish regions, where it is reported that a turnip lantern with an eerie face is placed somewhere it could scare others.

In England, Scotland and Ireland, there has long been a tradition of hollowing out different kinds of beets and using them as lanterns. In 1837, the term "Jack-O-Lantern" was first seen used about a lantern carved in a vegetable - not in the British Isles, but in America. It is also in the United States that the combination of Halloween and a hollowed out pumpkin appears in 1866.

Yet many associate the luminous pumpkin head with Ireland. This is due to the Irish legend that tells of Jack, a lazy and cursing drunkard of a farmer. There are different versions of the legend, but in all versions Jack succeeds in fooling the Devil himself. They make a deal that the Devil must not tempt Jack or demand his soul.

When Jack dies, he, with his non-pious way of life, cannot enter Heaven. Since he has fooled the Devil himself, he cannot enter the gates of Hell either. Instead, he receives from the Devil a small piece of glowing coal, which can light the way for him on his journey back to Earth. In order for the glowing piece of coal to last as long as possible, Jack puts it into a turnip, and with the light from the lantern, he now wanders restlessly in the darkness between Heaven and Hell.

Old traditions in new clothes

Just 20 years ago, many predicted that Halloween would not have a long life in Denmark.

At the time, the thought was that a new tradition like Halloween was a commercial invention. An excuse for the stores to sell more. The Danish business world has surely been very instrumental in bringing Halloween within the country's borders, but it takes more than a few good bargains for a new tradition to take root among us.

Today, Halloween is one of the most popular ways to face the darkness of winter. The tradition has become especially popular among the younger population, which is why Halloween has become a permanent tradition in most families with children and in primary schools.

The elements of faith and seriousness that existed in ancient times have disappeared. The seriousness has been replaced by good-natured jokes and horror gimmicks. The old traditions stemming from northern European folk beliefs and Christianity have thus taken new shapes in the form of spooky costumes, scary pumpkin heads and orange candy and decorations.

A cemetery has been set up as a decoration for Halloween
When researchers previously thought that Halloween could not become popular in Denmark, it was due to the fact that we already have Shrovetide, which is reminiscent of Halloween. They also thought that the Danes' special understanding of cosiness would not fit well with horror, and that we are too guarded to knock on people's doors saying "trick or treat!". Nevertheless, the tradition has found fertile ground in Denmark and has rapidly spread to the whole country.

Photo: Line Beck

How do we know this?

The folklore archives in Royal Danish Library stores several hundred years of documentation of people's daily lives in Denmark. We have large collections of recollections, fairy tales and legends as well as documentation of traditions and folk culture from all over the country. The archive's researchers and archivists work with everyday culture. In the past, people in particular were interested in the country's culture, but today the culture of all population groups is of interest, and our employees work with both historical and contemporary conditions. Unlike the museums, we focus especially on oral and written narratives and traditions.