Halloween Traditions

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this and nothing more.”

— from “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe

As the sun goes down on October 31, chances are someone or something will come rapping on your door. It might be a pirate, a goblin or a princess, but we’re fairly certain, whoever or whatever it might be, it will want candy!

But why do we dress up, carve pumpkins and knock on the doors of strangers’ houses requesting candy? And why in the world do they give it to us?

Halloween Roots
Halloween has roots that extend back before Christ, to 5th-century Celtic Ireland, when the feast day known as Samhain was celebrated to welcome in the Celtic New Year. On Samhain, beginning October 31 and lasting for three days, it was believed that the souls of the dead walked among the living in search of a person or animal to inhabit during the next year. This was believed to be the only way for dead souls to reach the afterlife. People would do all sorts of things to scare away the spirits: extinguish the fires in their homes to make them cold and unappealing, dress in frightening costumes, and noisily make their way through town to a raging bonfire lit by a Druid priest.

Many other customs were added to the Samhain festival over the course of history. Eventually, Pope Gregory IV — who realized that the traditions of Samhain were too dear to the people for them to forget — moved All Saints Day from May 13 to November 1, so that it could, in a sense, take the place of Samhain. So the Christian tradition of All Hallow’s Eve (Oct. 31), All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (honoring all Christian souls, Nov. 2) comprise the same time period that was originally the festival of Samhain. This, however, didn’t stop people from continuing to dress up, light fires and believe that spirits wandered among the living on All Hallow’s Eve.

Candy, anyone?
There are many theories about the origin of trick-or-treating. Some say the practice comes from the Samhain tradition of going door-to-door, requesting food for the feast. Others say it comes from the medieval European custom called “souling,” where Christians would go from house to house begging for soul cakes (square biscuits with currants). In return, they would pray for the dead relatives of the donors.

Halloween came to North America in the 1840s via Irish immigrants who were escaping The Great Potato Famine in their country. For them, Halloween included dressing up and doing mischief, such as unhinging fence gates and tipping over outhouses.

The mischief aspect of Halloween was eventually toned down and we are left today with the fine practice of distributing candy.

Jack-O-Lanterns
The carving of jack-o-lanterns is another Halloween tradition we have from the Irish, probably related to the trickster folktale about clever Jack, who trapped the devil up a tree. When Jack died, he was denied access to heaven because of all his trickery, as well as to hell, for deceiving the devil. The devil gave him only a little ember to light his way through the dark afterlife. Always the clever one, Jack placed the ember in a hollowed out turnip to protect it. The Irish had the custom of carving “jack’s lanterns” out of turnips on Halloween, but when they came to America, found pumpkins more plentiful. Thus we have the jack-o-lantern.

***

Who knew that Halloween was really such an Irish tradition — perhaps even more Irish than St. Patrick’s Day! Yet many cultures and customs have made Halloween what it is today. So now when you hear that little rap on your door and the small voice saying “trick or treat,” you’ll know not to fear. It’s not a spirit come to inhabit your soul, but a Powerpuff Girl come “souling” for Sweet Tarts. Happy Halloween!

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