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The modern Halloween holiday may have originated from the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain. The Samhain festival celebrates the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, and is sometimes falsely considered the "Celtic New Year". The festival was traditionally used by ancient pagans to take inventory of supplies and slaughter livestock to prepare for the winter. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31st, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the dead would come back to life and cause havoc such as spoiled crops or illness. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, with the bones of slaughtered livestock thrown into the fire. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festival to copy the evil spirits or placate them. When the Romans occupied Celtic territory, several Roman traditions were also incorporated into the festivals. Feralia, a day celebrated in late October by the Romans for the passing of the dead were incorporated into the celebrations.

The term Halloween is reportedly shortened from All-hallow-even. It was a day of religious festivities in various northern European Pagan traditions. The Church traditionally celebrated that day as the Vigil of All Saints, and, until 1970, a day of fasting as well. Like other vigils, it was celebrated on the previous day if it fell on a Sunday, although secular celebrations of the holiday remained on the 31st.

Halloween did not become a holiday in the United States until the 19th century, due to lingering Puritan tradition that forbid the observance of many holidays. American almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries do not include Halloween. The transatlantic migration of nearly two million Irish following the Potato Famine of 1845-1849 finally brought the holiday to the United States.

In most towns and cities, trick-or-treaters are welcomed by lit porch lights and jack-o-lanterns. In some areas, however, trick-or-treating is refocused to staged trick-or-treating events at nearby shopping malls. Those living in the country may hold Halloween parties, often with huge bonfires, with the celebrants passing between them. The parties typically involve traditional games (such as snipe hunting, bobbing for apples, or searching for candy like Easter egg hunting), haunted hayrides (often accompanied by ghost stories), and treats. Scary movies may also be shown at local theaters.

Trick-or-treating may end in the early evening, but the Halloween nightlife thrives in many urban areas. Costume parties provide an opportunity for adults to gather and socialize. Urban bars are frequented by people wearing Halloween masks and risqué costumes. Many bars and restaurants hold costume contests to attract customers to their establishments. Haunted houses are also popular in some areas.

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