Carving pumpkins. Donning costumes. Trick or treating. And collecting for charity. These are four activities now associated with Halloween.
But where did it all begin?
Halloween is believed to have evolved from the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that this change of seasons was a bridge to the world of the dead, when the veil between the living world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest.
It is also out of this Celtic tradition that the iconic Jack-o-lantern came to be.
According to Irish folklore, Jack was a notorious trickster caught between the two worlds. His pranks denied him access to Heaven and his having trapped the Devil in a tree angered the Devil so Jack wasn’t allowed in Hell either. As consolation, however, the Devil gave him a single ember to light his way between the two worlds.
The story goes that Jack carved a turnip and placed the ember inside as a lantern to keep the evil spirits away.
Thus on Samhain, the Irish carved turnips and placed candles inside as lanterns, known as “Jack-o-lanterns.” When the immigrants came to the new world, pumpkins were more readily available and so those were carved as Jack-o-lanterns, a tradition we follow today.
It is also from Samhain that we have probably inherited the tradition of dressing up in costumes.
For Samhain, the Celts are believed to have dressed up in elaborate animal skins and heads to disguise themselves as spirits and demons. These costumes were intended to confuse the spirits of the dead so they wouldn’t be able to distinguish the humans from spirits.
Today the meaning of costumes has evolved into kids dressing up as their favorite superheroes, princesses, monsters, or real life heroes, such as firefighters. Some still adopt the more traditional costumes of witches and wizards, probably more à la Harry Potter than cavorting with the Devil. But disguise is still very much a part of the Halloween tradition.
Then, of course, there is the tradition of trick or treating.
Once again we turn to the Celts. Some believe the tradition of begging for treats to have originated out of the practice of “mumming” or “guising.” People would disguise themselves and go door-to-door asking for food or in some cultures offering to pray for the dead in exchange for a gift of food or a “soul cake.”
In the U.S., trick or treating as we know it didn’t really take hold until the 1930s. It was interrupted by the sugar rationing of World War II but at the end of the war, the tradition of giving out candy became the norm. Today Americans spend an estimated $6 billion on Halloween, making it the second-largest commercial holiday.
The origin of the “trick” part is a bit more hazy. Some feel it evolved out of children going door-to-door in disguise and singing a song, reciting a poem or performing some other sort of “trick” in exchange for food. There is also a story that the trick part came from fairies roaming the roads on Samhain and rewarding the people who gave them food and pranking those who turned them away.
During the 1800s in the U.S. and Canada, the tricks were primarily turning over outhouses, opening farm gates and egging houses. Later on, when there were no more outhouses to overturn, egging houses continued along with stringing toilet paper from trees and bushes at the houses where people either weren’t home or pretended not to be home to avoid giving out treats.
Today, the “trick” part of trick or treating has become a fairly idle threat. And in many areas, rather than going door-to-door, block parties or other neighborhood events have emerged as a Halloween tradition.
In the 1950s, collecting for charity became part of Halloween when children started carrying cardboard boxes decorated with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) logo. Coins were collected for UNICEF programs, which include immunization, education and health care for needy children around the world, and in 60 years, more than $160 million has been donated.
How you and your family celebrate Halloween is part of the tradition and legacy you are creating for your children and their children. Whether it’s going door-to-door or enjoying a party, or both, Halloween is a time to have fun and participate in a long, diverse tradition, first begun thousands of years ago.
As you know, at LegacyShield we respect family traditions. We created LegayShield to provide a secure digital storage platform where you can keep your traditions safe, from personal stories, written or recorded, to those priceless moments caught in photographs throughout the years. We’ll help you protect your legacy so years from now you can follow the evolution of your own Halloween traditions.