The Halloween hype is muted this year, with trick-or-treating an uncertainty and costume parties postponed. It’s especially disappointing because the stars aligned this year for an epic Halloween. Not only does October 31st fall on a Saturday this year, but it’s a full moon! And not just any full moon, but a blue moon.
Even though many traditional celebrations will be scaled back or canceled this year, we can still put out the jack-o-lanterns and tell scary stories. But have you ever wondered why we carve pumpkins?
Grab some candy and get ready for some fun facts about the origins of Halloween!
Although Halloween is big business now, second only to Christmas in terms of retail sales, its roots are much less commercial. The holiday is really a mashup between the pagan festival of Samhain and the Christian All Hallow’s Eve.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-en,” because the Irish never met a consonant they didn’t drop) marks the end of the pagan or Celtic year. The last of the harvest has been gathered, and there’s nothing left to do but prepare for the long, dark winter ahead. Samhain isn’t a spooky holiday, per se, but it is a reflection on the natural cycle of death and rebirth.
Modern-day pagans often celebrate Samhain with feasting, bonfires, and remembrance of those who have passed away. Some choose to observe the holiday on October 31st, while others prefer to wait until the nearest full moon.
As Christianity became the dominant faith in Europe, Samhain became tangled up with All Saints’ Day and All Hallow’s Eve. The festivals for these holidays adopted many of the practices from Samhain, including bonfires and feasting. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? It was easier to convert the Celts to Christianity if the faith maintained some of the same celebrations.
Eventually, “All Hallow’s Eve” became “Halloween,” and the rest was history.
Many of our modern-day Halloween traditions come from England and Ireland. They began the tradition of jack-o-lanterns, but you probably wouldn’t recognize them.
Carved pumpkins are a relatively new development. The cheerful orange gourds weren’t widely available in Europe, so the traditional British or Irish jack-o-lantern was carved from… a turnip?
They were absolutely ghoulish, to be honest, resembling shrunken heads more than what we traditionally think of as a jack-o-lantern. They would 100% scare away any evil spirits or restless dead who happened to be passing by.
Immigrants brought the tradition to America. They discovered that pumpkins were much easier to carve–and tasty, too. The first recorded mention of a Halloween pumpkin in North America was in an 1866 Canadian newspaper. The journalist described it thus:
There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.
The origins of trick-or-treating are, like so much of our modern culture, a murky mishmash of different traditions.
Some Celts believed that the veil between the world of the living and the dead was thinner on Samhain. They offered food to the spirits who crossed over, hoping to appease them. That practice was really similar to Larelia, a Roman festival of the dead that honored the spirits of their ancestors with feasting and gifts. You can also see the similarities to Dia de los Muertos.
Dressing up in costumes to confuse evil spirits is also a cross-cultural phenomenon. The earliest costumes were made from animal skins and were intended to act as a disguise against vengeful ghosts. Costumes became more elaborate–and more similar to our modern-day ghosts and goblins–during the Middle Ages.
Mumming became a popular way to celebrate holidays–and not just Halloween. People enjoyed dressing up in costumes and performing songs for their neighbors on Christmas and Easter, as well as All Hallow’s Eve. Any excuse for a party, right?
The medieval Christians changed the game by going door-to-door and asking for food on All Hallow’s Eve. A gift of small, sweet cakes marked with a cross was traditional. In return, the “soulers” would offer to pray for the souls of the deceased. The recipe for the cakes included the same spices you’d find in a pumpkin pie today, as well as dried fruit like raisins or currants.
I think I’ll stick with Reese’s peanut butter cups, if that’s okay.