Jack-o’-lanterns, trick-or-treaters, clever costumes and spooky decorations—Halloween is one of the most beloved holidays in the United States. But where exactly did Halloween come from? What customs and folklore evolved into the festive holiday we celebrate today?
Samhain: The End of Summer
Halloween has its roots in Samhain (pronounced Sow-an), an ancient Celtic festival that marked the end of summer and the onset of winter. At Samhain, communities took stock of their supplies and provisions and prepared for the colder months. It was also a time of supernatural activity when barriers between the human world and the spirit world were lifted and malicious fairies were thought to roam the land. To protect themselves, the Irish built giant bonfires and offered sacrifices to the gods. Samhain was also a time for divination and omens, and this tradition lasted for centuries after Celtic regions converted to Christianity. For instance, Robert Burns’ poem “Hallowe’en,” written in 1785, mentions the practice of burning nuts to tell fortunes about love.
Although Halloween is usually associated with ghosts and the dead, Samhain probably didn’t originally have a connection with the afterlife. Rather, as Christianity developed in Europe and the British Isles, people began to honor and pray for deceased relatives on All Soul’s Day, November 2, when their spirits were thought to return to earth to visit.
Souling, Guising, and Jack of the Lantern
In the 1500s, long after Samhain had faded into distant memory (although it would be revived in the 20th century as a neo-Pagan holiday), a practice called “souling” emerged. Children and the poor would go door to door on All Soul’s Night and ask for food; in exchange, they would pray for the souls of family members who might be trapped in Purgatory. Each home would have a supply of “soul cakes” on hand, and the soulers would recite this verse before taking one:
A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake,
Have mercy on all Christian soules for a soule-cake.
Souling is one of the origins of the Jack-o’-lantern. As they went from home to home, soulers would carry a hollowed-out turnip with a candle in the center to represent souls in Purgatory. Later, celebrants began to carve frightening faces into turnips, rutabagas, and beets to scare off evil spirits and guide deceased relatives home.
The Jack-o’-lantern has another origin, too: the story of Stingy Jack. According to Irish legend, Stingy Jack was barred from both Heaven and Hell after he played tricks on the devil. Jack was doomed to wander the earth forever with a burning ember inside a hollowed-out turnip, earning him the name “Jack of the Lantern”—which gradually became “Jack O’Lantern.” Jack-o’-lantern was also another term for will-o’-the-wisps, ghostly lights that would lure travelers into bogs and other dangerous areas.
With All Saint’s Day on November 1 and All Soul’s Day on November 2 making up Hallowmas, collectively, October 31 came to be known as All Hallow’s Eve. It was customary to wear a disguise to protect oneself from angry ghosts and evil spirits when going out on All Hallow’s Eve, so people dressed as saints, cross-dressed, or wore their clothes inside out. The practice seems to have stemmed more from a spirit of fun than a genuine fear of evil, though, because guising was accompanied by raucous plays and songs—particularly by young people—poking fun at authority figures. As poet Richard Crashaw remarked:
How fit our well-rank’d Feasts do follow
All mischief comes after All-Hallow.
All these facts came from Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers, and Creating Your Vintage Hallowe’en by Marion Paul. Want to learn more and have some spooky fun? Check out the titles below and our Halloween events!