Halloween is perhaps the most beloved holiday aside from Christmas. You can feel it coming. The crisp October wind, the way the sunlight changes, the excitement of a new season. Pumpkin Spice lattes come back to Starbucks and the aroma of autumn leaves permeates the air. It’s eerie, beautiful, and mysterious. You can’t help but love it.
When we think of Halloween several things come to mind: pumpkins, candy corn, ghosts, vampires, witches, skanky costumes, and Sleepy Hollow.
It’s rare that one stops to wonder why exactly we celebrate this holiday in the first place. Where did it all begin? Why do we carve jack-o’-lanterns? These are questions I started asking myself, and I had to find out the answers.
The History of Halloween Itself
Halloween is believed to be linked to the Celtic celebration of Samhain. Samhain, translated as “summer’s end” in Old Irish, celebrates the coming of the “darker half” of the year. The festival begins on Halloween night and ends at sunset on the first of November.
In medieval times, the Celts believed that the separation between our world and the other realm was thin during Samhain, which allowed both good and evil spirits to come around. The use of costumes and masks came about because of the Celts’ desire to ward off evil entities. They believed that in disguising themselves as wicked beings, the spirits would think they were one of them and leave them alone. The name “Halloween” came from the Scottish “All Hallows Even,” and was originally abbreviated Hallowe’en.
In exploring this topic, I came across a tasty Halloween tradition called Soul Cake. Soul Cakes are popular in Europe, particularly in Ireland, Great Britain, and some parts of Italy. They are round, petite cakes that were traditionally made for All Souls Day to commemorate deceased loved ones. Soul Cakes would usually be given to the poor and to children, called “soulers,” who went door to door to sing and pray for the dead. Every cake eaten represented a soul being set free from Limbo so it could go to heaven. Many people believe this is how the tradition of trick or treating got started.
Story of the Jack-O’-Lantern
Pumpkin carving began after a wave of Irish immigrants came to America during the Potato Famine of the 1840s. They initially carved out turnips during their fall festivals to ward off evil spirits. When the Irish arrived in the U.S., they discovered that the country’s native pumpkins were much better to work with than turnips and were easily available.
Behind every tradition there’s a legend to be told, and the jack-o’-lantern is no exception. The practice of carving turnips began because of an ancient Irish fable about a guy named “Stingy Jack.”
Stingy Jack was a mean trickster who didn’t think twice about messing with people. He played pranks on his friends, his family, and even the Devil himself.
One night, Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Jack, of course, didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he tricked the Devil into turning into a coin. He stuck the coin in his back pocket which contained a silver cross. Being near the cross stripped the Devil of his powers, and so he was helpless. Stingy Jack eventually freed the Devil under the condition that he wouldn’t bother him for a year, and when Jack died he wouldn’t steal his soul.
The next year the Devil came back, but Jack was ready for him. He used his spiteful wit and tricked the Devil again. This time Jack trapped him in a tree by asking him to pick a pieceofa fruit. While the Devil was climbing, Jack hurriedly carved a cross on the tree trunk. The Devil was caught. Jack let him down, but only because he promised to not bother him for ten more years.
As time dragged on, Stingy Jack became old and frail. When he finally passed away, he went to the pearly gates of Heaven, but God wouldn’t let him in. He was sent away because of his lifetime of sin and trickery. Jack went to see the Devil, but he couldn’t stay with him either because of the promise not to steal his soul. Jack was doomed to wander the night. The Devil gave Jack a never-ending ember from the depths of Hell. Stingy Jack set the glowing ember in a carved turnip lantern, and is said to still be looking for a resting place to this day.
Baked Pumpkin Seed Recipe
After carving your Halloween pumpkin, spread the pumpkin “goop” out on a newspaper. Search through the goop and find the pumpkin seeds. Rinse the seeds off so there is no trace of pumpkin goop on them. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and place the seeds in a shallow cake pan. Use a tablespoon to scatter globs of butter in different areas of the pan. Add as much salt as you like. Bake for about five to six hours, making sure to turn the seeds about every 30 minutes. They’re done when they have a golden brown color.
Halloween is magical. While it is deeply rooted in history and folklore, there is nothing quite as thrilling as coming home holding a pillowcase overflowing with candy at the end of October 31st. It’s the traditions, both past and present, that make this holiday so much fun. So get your best Lady Gaga or Superman costume ready, hit up “Wally World” for some sugary candy goodness, and remember what it was like to be five years old again. Remember the magic.