Halloween 2010: Top Costumes, History, Myths, More

Back in black: Witch wear is again among the top Halloween costumes for U.S. kids and adults (file photo).

Get the facts on Halloween 2010 and Halloween history, this year's most popular costumes, record-breaking pumpkins, and more in National Geographic News's Halloween roundup.


Pagan Progenitor

Halloween's origins date back more than 2,000 years. On what we consider November 1, Europe's Celtic peoples celebrated their New Year's Day, called Samhain (SAH-win).

On Samhain eve—what we know as Halloween—spirits were thought to walk the Earth as they traveled to the afterlife. Fairies, demons, and other creatures were also said to be abroad.

Celtic Costumes

In addition to sacrificing animals to the gods and gathering around bonfires, Celts often wore costumes—probably animal skins—to confuse spirits, perhaps to avoid being possessed, according to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

By wearing masks or blackening their faces, Celts are also thought to have impersonated dead ancestors.

Young men may have dressed as women and vice versa, marking a temporary breakdown of normal social divisions.

In an early form of trick-or-treating, Celts costumed as spirits are believed to have gone from house to house engaging in silly acts in exchange for food and drink—a practice inspired perhaps by an earlier custom of leaving food and drink outdoors as offerings to supernatural beings.

Christian Influence on Halloween

Samhain was later transformed as Christian leaders co-opted pagan holidays. In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 All Saints' Day, or All Hallows' Day.

The night before Samhain continued to be observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades, though under a new name: All Hallows' Eve—later "Halloween."

Halloween Arrives in America

European immigrants brought Halloween to the United States, and the celebration really gathered steam in the 1800s, when Irish-American immigration exploded.

Anoka, Minnesota, may be home to the United States' oldest official Halloween celebration. Beginning in 1920, the city began staging a parade and bonfire.

Anoka historians say townsfolk wanted to curb Halloween pranks that loosed cows on Main Street and upended outhouses.


Business of Halloween 2010

After a very scary 2009, U.S. retailers might breathe a bit easier this year because Halloween spending is set to bounce back to 2008 levels, according to data compiled by the National Retail Federation (NRF).

About 148 million Americans will celebrate the holiday this year, and the average person will spend $66.28 on costumes, candy, and decorations—up from $56.31 last year. Total expenditures for the holiday should reach some $5.8 billion, a billion dollars more than 2009.

"We do think that consumers will be looking for creative ways to celebrate Halloween. While not breaking the bank they are investing a little bit of money into their fun this year," said NRF spokesperson Kathy Grannis.

Costumes consume the biggest part of the United States' Halloween dollars ($23.37 per person), followed closely by candy and decorations.

What an Average American Will Spend on Halloween in 2010

• Halloween Costumes: $23.37
• Halloween Candy: $20.29
• Decorations: $18.66
• Greeting Cards: $3.95

(Source: 2010 National Retail Federation survey.)

When it comes to costumes, the NRF survey found that about 40 percent of Americans will be dressing up—a total of almost 120 million kids, adults, and pets.

"We're expecting to see more people dress up in costume than ever before," said Grannis, noting costume variety has increased dramatically.

"We're seeing costumes of every type in stores right now and also more types of stores selling costumes," she said.

Grannis reported that in 2010 both kids and adults are leaning heavily toward traditional costumes such as princess and pirate getups.

But 2010 will bring trendy costumes as well, even if they don't make the annual top ten costume lists.

"We still hear from hundreds of thousands of people who have indicated that the nontraditional, Lady Gaga-type costume is something that they will be experimenting with this year. We've heard reports of disgruntled airline-employee costumes, from the incident this summer," Grannis said.

"I think pop culture will again play a very large role in how people decide to dress up."

Ten Most Popular Adults' Halloween 2010 Costumes

1. Witch
2. Vampire
3. Pirate
4. Nurse
5. Wench/Tart/Vixen
6. Cat
7. Zombie
8. Fairy
9. Athlete/Batman (Tie)
10. Dracula

Ten Most Popular Children's Halloween 2010 Costumes

1. Princess
2. Spider-Man
3. Witch
4. Pirate
5. Disney Princess
6. Action/Super Hero
7. Ghost
8. Pumpkin/Vampire (Tie)
9. Batman
10. Star Wars Character

Halloween costumes aren't just for people—a surprising 11.5 percent of U.S. pets get into the act as well. This year the lion's share of costumed U.S. pets will appear as either pumpkins (10.3%) or devils (9.7%).

Hallmark Halloween

Americans give about 35 million Halloween greeting cards a year, with the most popular variety being grandparent-to-grandchild, Deidre Parks, a spokesperson for Missouri-based Hallmark Cards, told National Geographic News in 2008.

"The first Halloween cards that we can detect in the U.S. were produced in 1908," Parks said.

Halloween Sugar Rush

There are some 36 million potential trick-or-treaters (children aged 5 to 13) in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2009 the average American consumed 24.3 pounds (11 kilograms) of candy, much of it during the Halloween season, according to census data.

Great Pumpkins

Far from the pumpkin's native Central America, chilly Illinois produces most of the United States' pumpkins.

Illinois produced some 429 million pounds (195 million kilograms) of pumpkins in 2009, while California and Ohio each produced at least a hundred million pounds (45 million kilograms) according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together the nation's major pumpkin-producing states grew 931 million pounds (422 million kilograms) of pumpkins, worth about $103 million.

Fall 2010 saw a new "world's heaviest pumpkin" crowned, which was harvested earlier this year and confirmed by Guinness World Records. New Richmond, Wisconsin farmer Chris Stevens grew a 1,811-pound (822-kilogram) behemoth, which is on display until Halloween at the Bronx Botanical Gardens in New York City. The fruit has a circumference of more than 15 feet (4.6 meters).

About 90 percent of a pumpkin's weight is from water. While growing, a champion pumpkin can add 40 pounds a day and reach roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. (See "Giant Pumpkins 'Go Heavy' This Halloween.")


Do You Believe in Magic?

More than a third of Americans say they believe in ghosts, according to an AP-Ipsos poll conducted before Halloween 2007. Twenty-three percent claimed to have seen a ghost or sensed one's presence.

About one in five people believe that spells or witchcraft are real, according to the poll. (Learn more about modern witchcraft.)

Halloween Urban Legends

Some Halloween spook stories just won't die—even if there's little substance behind the scare.

But experts say there is little evidence for such fears, and that the few isolated incidents involving abused black cats were the work of disturbed—often adolescent—loners.

Candy tainted by poisons, needles, or razor blades is another Halloween hobgoblin.

But sociologist Joel Best said dangerous-candy rumors might be manifestations of fears and anxieties about the future. In a world where so many threats—terrorism, crashing stock markets—seem uncontrollable, it may be comforting for parents to focus on preventable calamities, such as a child biting into a spiked apple, said Best, of the University of Delaware.

Best conducted a study of alleged tainted Halloween candy incidents.

"I have been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating," he wrote.


Green Halloween

Halloween Discoveries

Halloween Interactives

Halloween Pictures

Halloween: For Kids Only!