Today’s Halloween is thought to have its routes in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, pronounced Sah-ween. October 31 marked the change between light and dark, summer and winter and the harvest, which could mean the difference between surviving the winter or not. This was also the time that the recently dead might come back and could cause damage to the harvesting crops, so masks and costumes were worn to appease the dead or frighten them away. In addition, some believed that Faeries roamed dressed as beggars asking for food; those who gave them food were rewarded, those who did not were punished. All Saints Day was originally designated in May, but was later moved to November 1, perhaps acknowledging people’s continuing to celebrate of Samhain. In the Middle Ages, the poor went door-to-door on November 1, Hallowmas, All Saints Day, offering to pray for the dead in exchange for food-even Shakespeare mentions the practice in his play, Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Jack O’lanterns may have come from the pagan practice of using hollowed-out turnips to carry embers from sacred fires back to light their home hearth. Another popular tale from Ireland tells the story of Stingy Jack, a drunkard and thief, who tricked the devil multiple times, finally getting him to agree not to take his soul when he died. Stingy Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven, but the devil didn’t take his soul either, so Stingy Jack was condemned to wonder the earth. The devil took pity on him, though, and gave him a hollowed-out turnip with an ember inside to light his way, thus the origin of Jack O’lanterns! The size of the pumpkin helped it replace the turnip.
Irish immigrants to the United States in the mid-1800’s, fleeing famine, may have brought the traditions of Jack O’lanterns, Halloween and All Saints Day with them. Halloween is now the nation’s second biggest commercial holiday, with nearly $7 billion in spending.