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?

You’ll be in for a spectacle! If it’s already October, you’ll start seeing homes in your neighbourhood with scary decorations with some even transforming into haunted houses. You’ll also see an abundance of pumpkins with various carvings, as well as ghost cut-outs and rubber creepy crawlies everywhere. On October 31st, get ready for 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 display scary stuff on Halloween? What’s the connection of pumpkins, costumes and candy to the celebration? Read on to find out their origins:

Carved pumpkins (Jack-o’-Lanterns)

Jack-o’-Lanterns are pumpkins with carved faces or designs that are 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 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 the trickster’s soul when he died. When the time came, heaven also wouldn’t take Jack in so he was left wandering all over the earth. To light his way during his travels, he carried a candle inside a hollowed out turnip. To prevent Jack from knocking on their door, Irish families placed similar lanterns in the front of their homes. This tradition was later brought to North America by immigrants who used pumpkins instead of turnips since these were abundant during the season and were easier to carve. The lanterns became a symbol to ward off wandering spirits (not only Jack) and became integral to the Halloween tradition.

Costumes

Halloween has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. The eve before Samhain (October 31) was said to be the time when the dead would come back as spirits or ghosts. On this day, families would put food and wine on their doorsteps for their returning relatives. They would also wear masks and ghost costumes when they went out so that the spirits won’t bother them. This practice evolved into the tradition of dressing up in scary outfits during Halloween. It has since expanded to include even non ghost-related costumes like figures in popular culture, politics and others.

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).

Witches

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 strongest.

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.

Trick-or-Treating

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. Kids in costumes would go door-to-door begging for food or money. They would pray for the souls of the donors’ dead relatives as payment. Later on, souling became guising. Kids would still be in costumes begging, but this time in exchange for jokes, songs or other forms of amusement. Irish and Scottish immigrants brought this tradition to North America in the 1920s and 30s. It evolved into “trick-or-treating,” with pranks thrown into the equation. Homeowners would pay tricksters off with candy to keep them from taking wagon wheels off, unhinging gates, or soaping their windows. Today, this has turned into the more friendly practice of giving away candy minus the offending pranks.
 
How do you celebrate Halloween in your home country?

We hope that you’ll have fun this year and stay safe!
 
Article updates September 17, 2020.
 
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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