Guide to Celebrating Halloween in the United States

Guide to Celebrating Halloween in the United States

Although it started life as a pre-Christian Celtic harvest festival over 2,000 years ago , most people are more familiar with the form of Halloween in America widely practised today.

Traditionally celebrated as a time when the spirit world crosses over with the physical, Halloween has bloomed into a major commercial enterprise in the USA, with citizens of all ages splashing out on spooky costumes and colourful decorations. It’s also the perfect time to experience a range of lively parades and creepy attractions.

Chinese citizens planning to visit the United States during October, and discover a traditional US Halloween for themselves, should first check whether they need to meet EVUS requirements before traveling to the country. 

How Is Halloween Traditionally Celebrated in the USA?

Alongside New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving, Halloween is one of the biggest holidays on the U.S. festival calendar. 

Halloween traditions in America include small gatherings and parties involving friends and family, as well as large community events such as parades in many US cities, at which is it traditional to wear a disguise, most commonly a scary costume like a witch or vampire. 

Other popular Halloween traditions in the United States include:

  • Carving pumpkins to create ‘Jack O'Lanterns’  which are then displayed around the house and gardens and are intended to ward off evil spirits
  • Decorating the yard with a variety of scary props
  • Holding horror movie marathons
  • Creating haunted house attractions and haunted ‘hayrides’, scary events which usually take place outdoors across a large area. 

The most famous US Halloween tradition, dating back to the 1920’s, is for children to go ‘trick-or-treating’ in their costumes on the night of the 31st. This involves visiting other houses in the neighborhood to ask for candies and other small gifts.

If the homeowner declines to prove a ‘treat’ , the children are then able to perform a ‘trick’ to scare the inhabitants, although most people just hand over the candy so they don’t get any nasty surprises! 

Spooky fancy dress at Halloween

On Halloween, children and adults enjoy getting dressed up in outfits. Many opt for scary ghost, witch, and skeleton costumes but the options are endless. Tourists in America for Halloween may even see shop assistants and other workers dressed up for the occasion.

Fancy dress contests may take place at school and in the workplace with the prize going to the most imaginative and creative participant.

Pumpkins are carved at Halloween

Visitors in the United States on and around Halloween may notice pumpkins with carved faces and a candle or other light inside.

The carved pumpkins are called jack-o’-lanterns and are a Halloween tradition with a long history. An Irish myth claims that a man named Stingy Jack tricked the devil for his own gain. When he died he was allowed neither into heaver, nor to hell, and was instead forced to wander the earth for the rest of time.

On their arrival in the U.S., the Irish began carving spooky faces in turnips to scare Jack’s roaming spirit. The practice has remained ever since, these days pumpkins are the vegetable of choice for creating a bright orange jack-o’-lantern.

The Tradition of Trick-or-Treating

Wearing fancy dress, children go from house-to-house in their local neighborhood asking for treats, usually candy. The idea is that if a treat is not offered, the child might perform mischief on the property.

Trick-or-treating has been a Halloween tradition in the U.S. since the 1920s although stretches as far back as the 16th century in Britain and Ireland. It’s a fun activity for kids, parents are advised to accompany their children if they do wish to go out trick-or-treating.

Travelers staying in self-catered accommodation in America may like to have some sweet treats ready in case they are called upon.

Other Symbols of Halloween

The jack-o´-lantern is one of the most important symbols of Halloween in the U.S. and across many parts of the western world. Many other characters connected to the spiritual and physical world also have a special significance around Halloween. These include:

  • Ghosts
  • Skeletons
  • Witches and wizards
  • Bats
  • Black cats
  • Spiders

Gravestones, bones, and skulls are other symbols featured on Halloween decorations sold at stores across the States.

Is Halloween Only Celebrated in the US?

The origins of modern-day Halloween can be traced back to Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival celebrated throughout Europe, including what is now England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, and celebrations included dressing up in animal costumes, fortune telling, and lighting huge bonfires.

With the introduction of Chrisitianity to these countries, the celebration evolved into  “All Hallow’s Eve”, or Halloween, and the tradition of ‘guising’, asking for gifts from neighbours while wearing a costume, became a staple.

This practice was later taken by Irish and Scottish immigrants to America, where it eventually  became known by the term ‘trick or treat’. By the 1950s, the Halloween product industry in the States was booming , and holding costume parties soon became an accepted tradition. 

Although still celebrated in many countries around the world, nowadays Halloween is a much bigger celebration in the United States than in other English speaking-territories such as the UK. 

US  Cities with the Biggest Halloween Celebrations

From small towns to big cities, some of the best Halloween celebrations across the United States include: 

  • Anoka, Minnesota -  This small midwestern city may not be well known internationally, but it is famous within the United States as the ‘Halloween Capital of the World’. Anoka was given this title after hosting one of the first public Halloween celebrations in the country, in 1920, in an effort to discourage tricksters by distracting them with a party instead. This tradition has carried on into the 21st century with a huge parade taking place along Main Street every October. 
  • San Antonio, Texas - As is appropriate due to its close proximity to the Mexican border, this Texan city offers a large annual celebration dedicated to Dia de los Muertos, the Latin American equivalent of Halloween. The Day of the Dead festival in San Antonio allows visitors to enjoy all of the colourful trappings of this festival, including traditional arts and crafts and a range of Latin musical and dance performances.
  • Lahaina, Hawaii - Known as the “Mardi Gras of the Pacific”, the Hawaiian Halloween celebration in Lahaina sess the city’s Front Street closed to traffic for a huge costume parade which begins at sunset and is considered to be very family-friendly. A number of fun Halloween-themed events also take place in Honolulu, including a Haunted Village attraction and a Music and Arts Festival in the city's Art District. 
  • Los Angeles, California - If visiting the City of Angels during October, there’s only one place to be on the 31st, the West Hollywood Carnaval. One of the biggest Halloween parties in the world, this annual parade sees a huge number of costumed visitors taking part in a large parade that ends with the crowning of the Carnaval Queen.
  • Manhattan, New York - The Greenwich Village procession is the only art-based Halloween parade in the country, and has been going strong for almost 50 years. It is best known for the multitude of giant puppets,  which participants can also volunteer to operate during the celebration. An Annual Kids Halloween Parade also takes place in nearby Washington Square Park on October 31st. 
  • Salem, Massachusetts - Chinese travelers in the USA may be especially interested to experience Halloween in a city known worldwide for its macabre colonial past. Famous for the witch trials which took place during the 17th century, Salem continues to celebrate its spooky heritage with a program of annual events. These include a Grand Parade, an enormous fireworks display, haunted house attractions, and film screenings of holiday classics such as Hocus Pocus
  • Sleepy Hollow, New York State - Sleepy Hollow is another US city widely associated with spooky goings-on because of the legend of the headless horseman, made famous by the Disney cartoon and the Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp.  And, like Salem, the town embraces its eery legacy every year on Halloween with a range of unique activities, many of which are family-friendly. One especially fun event is the Great Jack O’ Lantern Blaze, which involves over 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins.
  • Louisville, Kentucky - This Halloween party in Louisville is perfect if traveling to America with children. The zoo is converted into a real-life storybook with costumed characters and trick-or-treating. Tourists can enjoy the event Thursday to Sunday throughout October.

A number of large family-friendly Halloween-themed events are also celebrated in the major theme parks across the country, including at Disneyland in California, Disneyworld in Orlando, and Legoland Florida.

Is Halloween a Public Holiday in America?

No, even if Halloween falls on a Saturday, it is still considered as a working day and is not an official public holiday. The majority of business will follow normal opening hours, public transport will operate as usual, and, if it falls on a weekday, government offices will also remain open. 

Nevertheless, when planning to visit the USA for Halloween, Chinese citizens should make sure that they submit an EVUS application form at least a few days in advance of the intended entry date, to allow for sufficient processing time for the visa update to be approved. 

Those who do not already have a U.S. tourist visa should ensure that they first obtain the relevant travel document from an embassy or consulate of the United States, submitting an application well in advance to allow sufficient time to receive approval.

Planning a U.S. Halloween Trip

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China who hold a valid 10-year U.S. visa must enroll in EVUS. This process has to be completed every 2 years to ensure visa details are kept up to date. Travelers are recommended to complete the process at least 72 hours before departure.

Chinese passport holders who complete the EVUS registration process can stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days. Those visiting at Halloween can make the most of their trip and enjoy Christmas in the United States.

Tourists are advised to book accommodation in advance, especially if visiting a city which holds a major festival which attracts many visitors.

Halloween is not a public holiday in the States so stores, restaurants, and other services are available.

Weather in the U.S. at Halloween

Halloween is on the 31st of October, in the middle of Fall in the U.S. Weather conditions vary depending on the state, with southern areas remaining mild and temperatures dropping further north.

October is the driest month of the year in New York City and temperatures are pleasant, ranging from 50 to 64 ºF (10 to 18 ºC).

When packing for the trip, tourists should bear in mind that most Halloween celebrations take place outdoors in the evening. Warm clothes should be taken, especially if heading to a northern state.

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