Like many of the modern holidays we celebrate, Halloween has roots that stem back thousands of years. The traditions and celebrations we associate with the holiday are actually taken from several different ancient festivals.
The most ancient of those is the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen), which was widely celebrated around 2,000 years ago. Meaning ‘Summer’s End’, Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. At the time, the year was marked in two halves; the light half, and the dark half. Samhain marked the end of the light and the beginning of the dark.
Samhain was one of four Celtic holidays celebrated throughout the year, along with Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. These festivals were known as ‘fire festivals’, and in between these came the two Equinoxes and two Solstices. Samhain is celebrated between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. These festivals were originally celebrated across Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, before spreading throughout Europe.
Centuries after the original celebrations began, Pope Gregory III decided to move the annual festival celebrated by the Romans to November 1st, and this holiday evolved to become All Saints’ Day. The night before came to be known as All Hallows’ Eve, and this holiday eventually became the modern Halloween we now know. Many of the traditions we now associate with Halloween were carried down from these celebrations. Here’s where these customs come from.
As with many modern rituals and traditions, it is widely debated how the practice of trick-or-treating came about. There are two main theories. The first is that it comes from the Samhain ritual. During Samhain, people believed that the portal between this world and the next would open, and the dead would come back to Earth. People would leave offerings outside their door to appease the spirits, and to welcome back deceased relatives. Some would take this further by setting a place at the table for their loved ones.
The second theory is that it started with the tradition of people (primarily children) going from door to door, asking for ‘soul cakes’. In exchange, the beggars would pray for the souls of those who gave them the food and their loved ones.
Again, this is a custom of which the origin is argued. Some believe that it started with the act of “mumming” and “guising,” which is when people would dress in disguises and go door to door asking for food. Others say this started on All Saints’ Day, as a genuine tribute to the Saints.
Others still believe that the custom started during Samhain, as a way for people to disguise themselves from the dead. Many people feared the spirits they believed would cross over on the night of Samhain, and they believed that if they disguised themselves, the ghosts would believe they were also dead, and would not cause them any harm.
Originally, Jack-o-Lanterns were made from turnips. The tradition changed to pumpkins when the Irish moved to the USA and couldn’t find any turnips, so they changed to the fruit. Unsurprisingly, there are many stories surrounding the origins of why we carve pumpkins. One is that they were used to scare away evil spirits. Another, very popular story, revolves around the legend of Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack was a drunken farmer who attracted The Devil with his mean, selfish ways. However, he outsmarted the devil three times in his life, tricking him into agreeing to never claim his soul. When he died, Jack was barred from Heaven because of his evil actions. The Devil, smarting from being tricked but keeping his promise, would not allow him into Hell. He gave Jack just a lump of burning coal and sent him away. It is said that Jack hollowed out a turnip and put the burning piece of coal inside, and has been using this lantern to guide him as he has roamed the Earth alone ever since. The Irish referred to the figure as ‘Jack of the Lantern’, and this eventually evolved into simply ‘Jack O’ Lantern’.