October 31 is the day we know as Halloween. To those of us with Irish roots it is known as Samhain (pronounced /ˈsɑːwɪn/ SAH-win or /ˈsaʊ.ɪn/ SOW-in. There is no dispute that this holiday began as a harvest festival celebrating harvest’s end and the beginning of winter. There is a dispute, however, whether it is a Christianized pagan holiday that arose from the Irish Samhain or is a Christian holiday that developed on its own. Regardless, Halloween has morphed into something far removed from the harvest celebration it once was.
Today, children dress in costumes and go door-to-door chanting trick-or-treat in the hopes of receiving a treat in the form of candy from each home they approach. This modern day ritual has roots in the Celtic Samhain tradition that dates back at least to the 16th century where people would go from house to house wearing disguises and telling stories and singing songs in exchange for food. By the 18th century pranks were being played at night with people being illuminated by hollowed out turnips carved with grotesque faces to represent the spirits.
When the tradition came to America, the hollowed out turnip became a pumpkin and the pumpkin took on the guise of the jack-o-lantern which has its own story:
On route home after a night’s drinking, Jack encounters the Devil and tricks him into climbing a tree. A quick-thinking Jack etches the sign of the cross into the bark, thus trapping the Devil. Jack strikes a bargain that Satan can never claim his soul. After a life of sin, drink, and mendacity, Jack is refused entry to heaven when he dies. Keeping his promise, the Devil refuses to let Jack into hell and throws a live coal straight from the fires of hell at him. It was a cold night, so Jack places the coal in a hollowed out turnip to stop it from going out, since which time Jack and his lantern have been roaming looking for a place to rest.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the phrase “trick-or-treat” came into fashion and the first mass produced costumes were not made until the 1930’s. These costumes began as ghosts, vampires and monsters. The holiday began to reflect the ideas of authors and movie makers. Bats, headless horseman, Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummies and other horror characters became the norm. Now, any and all costumes are worn including bees, baseball players, dogs, and princesses. Pumpkins are carved, decorated, sewn, drawn and painted. Candy is sold by the millions and costumes are bought, sold and rented. Halloween has gone from a one day harvest festival of the ancient Celts to a multi-million dollar month long industry of 21st century people all over the world. It is truly a representation of how a small group of people on a very small island have impacted people everywhere over more than a thousand years.