It is the spookiest time of the year! Let’s dig a bit deeper into the history of our modern Halloween traditions, and get down to the bones of our favorite time of year.
In the past, we gave you an overview of these ghoulish festivities. We also had an important discussion about cultural appropriation around Halloween and the Day of the Dead festival.
Without further ado, we present you with some spooky Halloween history!
Spooky Halloween History
History of Pumpkin Carving
Let’s begin with the origins and history of carving pumpkins!!
In many places across Canada and the US, pumpkins are being harvested and sold at your local grocer in anticipation of the Halloween tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns. Carving and lighting a pumpkin is believed to ward off evil spirits on Halloween night—the night where supernatural beings and the souls of the dead walk the earth! In Christian communities these carved faces represent the souls trapped in purgatory.
This tradition is believed to have begun in Ireland in the 19th century. People would carve large turnips and potatoes and place them in windows to scare away any souls that could cause harm on Halloween night. In the early 20th century this tradition came to America by way of Irish immigrants.
The name, jack-o’-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. As the story goes, Stingy Jack tricks the devil and makes a deal that the devil won’t take revenge on Jack, nor claim his soul when he dies. When Stingy Jack dies, the devil rejects him from hell and gives him a single burning coal to go off into the night and find his own hell. Jack places the coal in a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since!!! (cue spooky music.)
In Ireland, ghost lights seen in swamps were said to be Jack’s lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered. He and the lights were dubbed “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’Lantern.” Fun fact: Swamp gas has been theorized as an explanation for the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects.
Jack-o-Lanterns were popularized in America thanks to popular depictions, such as Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) and its titular villain, the Headless Horseman, with a pumpkin or jack-o’-lantern in place of his severed head.
History of Wearing Masks and Costumes
Ever wonder why we wear costumes and masks on Halloween? And no, it has nothing to do with being a sexy Mail-in Ballot.
Spoiler alert: It has to do with hiding from the D-E-A-D!!
One of the earliest references to wearing costumes on Halloween comes from Scotland in 1585, though it is believed that the custom predates this and can be traced back to the festival of Samhain. Samhain marks the official start of winter, which was known to the Celts as the dark season during which “the world of the gods was made visible to humankind.” These gods would play tricks on the living, so people would dress up as animals or beasts in order to hide from the malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.
Some believe this originated in the pagan tradition of impersonating the Aos Sí (supernatural beings that live between our world and the next), or the souls of the dead to receive offerings on their behalf. Impersonating these beings, or wearing a disguise, was also believed to protect you from these same beings.
The Samhain festival included people wearing masks or costumes to represent the spirits, and their faces were blackened with ashes taken from the sacred bonfire of the festival. This was later adapted by Christians in parts of Western Europe where children would go “souling” door-to-door (more on this shortly!).
From the 16th century, this tradition also involved mumming and guising, where people would go door-to-door in costume reciting verses or songs in exchange for food—and sometimes threatening mischief if they did not receive treats!
Today, wearing costumes on Halloween is less about hiding from the dead or evil spirits and more about imitating your favourite pop culture reference. This turn of events didn’t occur until the 1930s when Halloween costumes became mass produced thanks to companies like Ben Cooper, Inc..
History of Halloween Treats
Have you ever wondered why we give and receive treats on Halloween? Though in modern America, trick-or-treating is about getting the best candy haul (boo, raisins), it has roots in remembering and honouring the dead.
Many folklorists believe this can be traced back to the practice of the soul cake, or soulmass-cake. Traditionally these small round cakes were designed with crosses made from currants and were made to commemorate the souls of the dead. It is believed these cakes were originally created in the communal bonfires during Samhain and left out as offerings to the dead, or any spirits that had been condemned to roam the earth.
During the middle ages this practice was adapted by Christians (we are sensing a theme here) during Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. During this time children would go “souling”, which is the ritual of begging for the cakes door-to-door. The soulers would sing laments for the dead and say prayers for the souls trapped in purgatory in exchange for these cakes.
There are still places that follow these traditions in many parts of the world! If you want to make your own soul cakes to give as treats to your friends and family on Halloween we suggest this recipe by The English Kitchen. You could also make soul cakes to memorialize your dead loved ones. Baking with family could be a great way to memorialize your dead loved one and feel connected on the night where the veil between us and them is at its thinnest. At the very least you get to eat cookies! Who does not love a cookie?
Want to make your own Soul Cookies? We shared Marie Rayner’s recipe on our Instagram page.
History of Halloween Night
We have already mentioned how this night can be traced back to Samhain. Samhain is the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the ‘darker half’ of the year, also referred to as ‘summer’s end’. This festival was celebrated from the eve of the 31st of October to the eve of the 1st of November, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset.
Bonfires were lit at night as a way to cleanse evil and darkness. These fires were blessed by Druids, celtic priests, and embers from the fire would be distributed to be relit in practitioners’ homes as protection in the coming darkness of the year. These bonfires were later adapted into All Souls celebrations where they served as guiding lights for the souls in Purgatory who could return on this sacred night.
According to Irish mythology, Samhain was a time when the ‘doorways’ to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world. Since Samhain celebrates the end of the harvest and the coming winter, it is also linked with the dead. The souls of the dead were believed to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Practitioners would lay our feasts and the souls of their dead kin were invited to attend and a place was set at the table for them.
It was also believed that the coming cold winter forced ghosts out of the fields and forests and back into the home, but they were not all friendly spirits of dead loved ones. Some could be vengeful, or not even human!
Fairy mounds, or portals to the Otherworld, would open on Samhain allowing the Aos Sí to cross into our world. In Scottish traditions, these fairies were called Sluagh Sidhe, and were cursed spirits of the dead who were rejected by both heaven and the earth. They were often called “the restless dead.” These beings were tricksters who would steal souls and drag children into the Otherworld. To make matters worse, these restless dead could hide in the form of animals to get close to the living. They would even enter into the homes of the dying to steal their souls, so it was important to lock up all windows and doors — Thus continues the long tradition of supernatural beings being perplexed by the concept of doors.
Death Positive Halloween
Wiccans and neopagans still celebrate a variation of Samhain to this day, with the rest of us embracing the more modern aspects of celebrations with eating too much candy and watching horror movies. But Halloween could be a way to break through America’s more death phobic culture.
Many places around the world have celebrations and traditions that help keep them connected to the dead and the truth of their own mortality. If we have learned one thing about this spooky history, is that these death-positive traditions from centuries ago were adapted over time, and not banished or forgotten. If anything, this speaks to the power of rituals and celebrations around mortality and remembering the dead. If that doesn’t make Halloween a death-positive celebration, we don’t know what does.
So carve your pumpkins, bake your soul cakes, and dress in your favorite costume as you celebrate the night where the living and the dead are closer to one another. Maybe pull out a ouija board to ask where grampa left the remote control. We hope you enjoyed this Spooky Halloween History, and whatever you do this Halloween remember its death-positive origins, and stay spooky boils and ghouls!
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