Why do we celebrate with pumpkins, ghouls and other scary stuff on Halloween?

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Is it your first time to celebrate Halloween in Canada?

Then you’ll be in for a spectacle! If it’s already October, you’ll start seeing some of the homes in your neighbourhood transform into haunted houses. You’ll also see an abundance of pumpkins with various carvings, as well as ghost cut-outs and rubber creepy crawlies used as decorations everywhere. And on October 31st, it will be a whole day of fun as kids (and adults) dress up in a variety of costumes and go trick-or-treating in the evening.

Halloween History, National Geographic

But why do we highlight scary stuff on Halloween? And what’s the connection of pumpkins to the overall Halloween theme? Read on and find out about the Jack-o’-Lantern and other symbols (and activities) and their origins:

Carved pumpkins (Jack-o’-Lanterns)

Modern-day Jack-o’-Lanterns are pumpkins with carved faces or designs on the outside. They are usually lighted from within. Originally, they were hollowed out turnips and potatoes with a lighted candle inside. The use of these lanterns originated from an Irish folktale about Stingy Jack, a drunk and a prankster. The story goes that Jack tricked the Devil and trapped him several times. In exchange for his freedom, the Devil promised not to take Jack’s soul when he died. Jack let the Devil go. However, when Jack died, heaven did not want him either so he was stuck wandering all over the earth. To light his way, Jack carried a candle inside a hollowed out turnip. Irish families placed similar lanterns in the front of their homes in the belief that these will prevent Jack from knocking on their door. This tradition was later brought to North America by immigrants who used pumpkins as they were abundant during the season and were easier to carve. They used the lanterns to ward off wandering spirits (not only Jack) which became integral to the Halloween tradition.


If you watched the video above (History of Halloween), you already have an idea of how the tradition came to be. Halloween had its roots in the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain celebrated on November 1. The eve before Samhain was said to be the time when the dead would come back as spirits or ghosts. Families would put food and wine on their doorsteps for the returning spirits. And when people went out, they would wear masks and costumes so that the spirits would think they were ghosts too and not bother them. This evolved into the tradition of gearing up as various scary characters during Halloween. The practice has since expanded to include even non ghost-related apparel as you will see on the 31st.

Incidentally, Samhain was later Christianized and adapted as Hallowmas. Hallowmas is composed of All Hallow’s Eve (now called Halloween, Oct. 31), All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows, Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).


Legend has it that witches gathered twice a year when seasons changed: on May Day Festival or Beltane (May 1) and on All Hallow’s Eve (Oct. 31). Halloween is said to be the original Witches’ Convention where they cast spells on unsuspecting victims, transform into different creatures and cause other magical mischief on the night where their powers were at their greatest.

Ghosts and ghouls

Again, going back to the idea that spirits roamed the earth on Halloween night, ghosts and ghouls became symbols of this holiday. All Hallow’s Eve is said to be the time when the veil between the spirit world and natural world was so thin that it allowed ghosts or spirits to escape freely.


The practice of knocking on each door and asking for candy evolved from the Celtic practice of souling and guising. In the Middle-ages, children (and sometimes poor adults) would go souling on All Hallow’s Eve. Dressed up in a costumes, they would go door-to-door begging for food or money. In exchange, they would pray for the souls of their dead relatives. Later on, souling became guising. They would still be in costumes begging for fruit and money, but this time, they did it in exchange for jokes, songs or other forms of amusement. In the 1920s and 30s, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought this tradition to North America. It evolved into “trick-or-treating,” with pranks now thrown into the equation. Not wanting to be victims of mild pranks (wagon wheels taken off, gates unhinged, window soaping, etc.), homeowners would pay off tricksters with candy. Today, this has turned into the family-friendly practice of just giving away candy minus the offending pranks.
So now you have a better idea of why Halloween is the scary, crazy, weird but fun holiday that it is today. So put on your scariest Halloween costume, join the party, and enjoy all the candy coming your way.

Have fun and stay safe!
Sources: History of Halloween, History.com; 12 Scary Halloween symbols and their origins, Lea Rose Emery, Ranker; History of the Jack-o’-Lantern, History.com; Halloween symbols: The Witch, Things that go Boooo; and Why do we go trick-or-treating on Halloween? Matt Soniak, Mental Floss; All accessed October 24, 2017.

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