By Vanessa Puig
Before kids donned outfits of princesses, pirates and Pokémon, and before mass pilgrimages to Orlando to celebrate Halloween Horror Nights with Leatherface, Halloween was a much different holiday. What we know as a night full of mischief and M&M’s has ancient roots dating as far back as 2,000 years ago in territories that are now Ireland and the United Kingdom.
We owe our penchant for knocking on random doors to the Celts, who began celebrating their new year every fall on November 1. Since winter marked a dreary time when people would die from the harsh cold, the Celts believed that the night before the New Year, ghosts would appear in the human world. So, on every October 31 they connected with the spirits by celebrating “Summer’s End,” or “Samhain” (pronounced sow-in), making sacrifices of animals and crops and predicting the future via otherworldly messages that would hopefully protect them during the long winter. During these ceremonies, the Celts wore costumes of animal skins, thus influencing our current fashion choices of angels, devils and hippies.
By the time the Romans occupied Celtic lands in 43 AD, they decided to throw their own festivals of Feralia, the Roman day of the dead, and Pomona into the mix. Pomona was the goddess of fruit and trees, believed to be where we get the tradition of bobbing for apples.
Eventually, Christian influence spread by the seventh century, with November 1 becoming All Saints’ Day, also known as All-Hallowmas. October 31 became All-Hallows Eve, or what we now consider Halloween. The holiday didn’t have much of a presence in the United States until the Irish began immigrating into the country during the Potato Famine of the mid-1800s.
The Irish brought with them some of the traditions we see even today. The carving of pumpkins comes from an Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack, a man who tricked the devil and was cursed to wander the earth in limbo after he died. He carved out a turnip and lit it with a candle to find his way through the darkness. The Irish originally carved turnip lanterns to ward off Stingy Jack and other spirits until they settled in America, where they discovered that pumpkins were much easier to carve (and probably a lot more attractive).
As far as trick-or-treating goes, children in medieval times would go door-to-door begging for “soul cakes,” little bread desserts collected in honor of the children’s dead relatives. With each cake they received, the children had to say a prayer that their relatives would be released from purgatory. Soul cakes have now been replaced with modern fun-size candies, and children today most likely only pray that they do not get stuck with a bagful of reject goodies – pennies, toothbrushes or those wax lips that taste like five-year-old bubblegum.