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Trick or Treat: Halloween's Customs and Traditions

Oct 19, 2010 | By Gillian FitzGerald

Ever wonder where the Halloween customs come from - trick or treating, Jack 'o Lanterns and crazy costumes? Insight into the origins and traditions of the Halloween holiday.

Where It All Started

Halloween batsThe origins of Halloween can be traced to several pagan festivals, such as the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and seeds, or the festival of the dead, Parentalia. More commonly, it's linked to the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, which celebrates summer's end - the 'lighter half' of the year and the beginning of autumn - the 'darker half' of the year.
The ancient Celts believed the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on this night, allowing both good and evil spirits to roam free. Family ancestors were honored and invited into homes, while evil spirits were warded off.

The actual name of Halloween only emerged around the 16th century and derived from All Hallows Eve, which was the evening before the All Saints Day. All Saints Day, celebrated on November 1, was created by the Christian church to try convert pagans to Christianity.

Jack 'o Lanterns

Halloween pumpkin

The ubiquitous carved pumpkin emerged in Ireland, where a Celtic tale was told of less-than-upstanding man, named Jack. Jack deviously tricked the devil upon several occasions into not claiming his soul. When he eventually died, Jack was barred from Heaven for dishonesty. He was also barred from Hell due to his trickery. Destined to wander the earth in darkness, Jack, in great fear, asked the devil for a light. The devil gave Jack a coal from the fires of hell, which he placed inside a half-eaten turnip to create the "Jack o' Lantern" we all know today.

In traditional Celtic Halloween festivals, large turnips or beets are hollowed out, carved with faces and placed in windows and doorways to ward off evil spirits with the soul of Jack. In North American, pumpkins are used, being more readily available and easier to carve. The American tradition of carving pumpkins was actually first associated with harvest time, only later becoming connected with Halloween in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Crazy Costumes

Costumes came about from the believed need to ward off evil spirits on this night. Dressed in costumes and masks, the Celts believed they could disguise themselves as harmful spirits or demons and pass the night unnoticed. They then spent the night dancing, telling stories and reading fortunes around large bonfires.

Today halloween costumes are both modelled after monsters such as ghosts, skeletons, witches and devils and pop culture figures such as superheroes or movie characters.

Halloween bonfire

Blazing Bonfires

The Samhain (Halloween) festival was also a time that the Celts took stock of their food supplies and used to slaughter livestock for the upcoming winter. Bonfires were a big part of the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire.
Bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown into the flames, which is said to be the origin of the word "bonfire" (i.e. "bone fires"). Sometimes two bonfires were built side-by-side and people walked their livestock between them in a cleansing ritual. 
The bonfires and sacrifices guaranteed that the sun would burn brightly after a long, dreary winter. Today, it's still common to see hundreds of traditional bonfires in Ireland on Halloween night.

Trick or Treating

Children trick or treatingThe current practice of trick or treating seems to have emerged to from two pagan and Christian practices.
The ancient Celts, who believed both good and bad spirits roamed the streets on that night, used leave out gifts and treats to pacify the evil and to ensure the following year's crops would be plentiful.
The late medieval practice of souling in Ireland and Britain, also resembles trick or treating. The poor would go house to house on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2).

While "trick" today is mostly an idle threat to perform mischief on homeowners, in some parts of Scotland, children still go traditional guising. This is where the child performs some form of trick, e.g. sings a song or tells a ghost story, to earn their treats.

Tags : halloween, hallows eve, origins, customs, traditions, jack 'o lantern, costumes, trick or treat, bonfires

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