Is Halloween really a holiday?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

While some may question the origins and legitimacy of Halloween, it apparently is one of America’s favorite holidays. In 2019, according to the National Retail Federation's consumer survey, 172 million Americans plan to participate in the holiday. So where did this tradition come from and why is there such devotion to it?

The holiday is believed to have originated with the celebration of Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival, observed between sunsets on October 31 and November 1. According to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Celts began the Halloween tradition of wearing costumes, often animal skin to hide themselves from spirits, and masks to impersonate ancestors who had preceded them to the spirit world. (See how people dressed up a century ago.)

Revelers went from house to house performing silly acts in exchange for food and drink, possibly an extension of an earlier custom of leaving refreshments outdoors as offerings to supernatural beings. This likely inspired today's trick-or-treat traditions.

Some believe the day has pagan roots. Christian leaders stepped in to transform pagan holidays, and in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 All Saints' Day, or All Hallows' Day. In some parts of the world, Christians attend services and visit graves. The celebration of Halloween became more popular with Irish immigration to the U.S. in the 1800s. Anoka, Minnesota, may be home to the United States' oldest official Halloween celebration. In 1920, the city began staging a parade and bonfire to mark the day.

Still a Halloween skeptic? Consumers are expected to spend $8.8 billion on Halloween. Beyond the billions in candy and decorations, there’s this: 29 million people plan to dress their pets in Halloween costumes.

Popular? Apparently.

Exclusive poll: Don't stop fighting for change now, women say

A century after gaining the right to vote, new opportunities and challenges face American women, a National Geographic/Ipsos poll found. A generation of people with ideas of submissive wives are retiring. Women are achieving in all sectors of work—and are running for the nation’s highest office. Most of the women polled, however, find life easier for a man, a preference for a man in jobs (except nursing), and big concerns over health care, gun violence, and sexual harassment.

Check out the graphic below for survey highlights. And let us know your views at

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Today in a minute

Pontius Pilate’s road. The biblical villain played a major role in building Jerusalem two millennia ago, including a newly discovered road that led pilgrims to the Jewish Temple. Archaeologist Nahshon Szanton speculates that Pilate’s construction of the street “may have been to appease the residents of Jerusalem,” as well as to “aggrandize his name through major building projects.”

"A rickety ladder." That's what historian Jill Lepore calls the impeachment process. Impeachment trials, first wielded by the English Parliament in 1376, have been held only 18 times in the U.S. Senate in 230 years (and only twice for a president). “Impeachment is a tall and rickety ladder; conviction is a tiny window, barely cracked open," Lepore writes in the New Yorker. "It’s difficult and dangerous to climb the ladder, and no one who has made it to the top has ever managed to crawl in through the window.”

Bringing Britain together. At a time when the U.K. is torn asunder politically, maybe it could use a leader like Big Bad Boudica. The Iceni queen gathered a force of 120,000 that defeated the Romans several times in A.D. 60 and burned London to the ground. Boudica had rallied Britons to defend their land after she and her family were tortured by Roman soldiers. For centuries, writers, artists, and poets have been inspired by her rebellion, strength, and courage.

Million Letters Campaign
. That’s what collector Andrew Carroll is calling his grassroots effort to save history—by gathering letters written over the decades by American service members. Carroll has donated tens of thousands of letters from soldiers in past wars to Chapman University, as well as previously unheard audio from Vietnam from then-Col. George Patton IV. Smithsonian reported that Carroll’s first historic letter came from his cousin, a WWII pilot shellshocked from witnessing the just-liberated Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. “When we first walked in we saw all these creatures that were supposed to be men,” his cousin wrote his wife on April 21, 1945. “They were dressed in black and white suits, heads shaved and starving to death."

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Overheard at National Geographic

Beyond gold doubloons. Did you know there are from 1 million to 3 million shipwrecks on the planet? National Geographic writer and editor Kristin Romey is looking into new treasure hunters, who are discovering and salvaging shipwrecks faster than ever. The inquiry is raising questions such as: Who owns our submerged past? And is critical scientific information being destroyed in these quests of the deep.

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Tomorrow, TRAVEL Executive Editor George Stone describes a book that covers, among other things, horseback riding in Oman, hiking in Iceland’s eastern fjords, and cheetah spotting in Tanzania. If you’re not a daily subscriber, sign up here.

One last glimpse

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Day of the Dead. In this image, people celebrate this ancient Mexican holiday among graves at a cemetery in Atzompa, in the southern state of Oaxaca. The Day of the Dead connects generations, teaching respect and humility in a modern world that may overvalue status and possessions. With altars, skulls, painted faces, and humorous poems, Mexicans celebrate and identify with their forebears. “We are all skeletons," the saying goes. We are all the same.

This newsletter has been curated by David Beard. Have an idea or a link for us? We’d love to hear from you at And thanks for reading!