Why do we dress up in funny costumes for one day a year? Why do our kids go door to door begging for candy? Why do we carve out pumpkins and place lights inside them? The answer involves the Celts, the church and potatoes.
It all starts with the Celts. The Celts were a tribal people who lived in Britain, Ireland, France and Spain around 1200 B.C.
They celebrated their new year on Nov. 1, to observe the change from summertime into wintertime. This was called Samhain, the Gaelic word for “end of summer.”
The Celts believed that the night before, on Oct. 31, the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead would blur, allowing spirits of the dead to return. To ward off the spirits, they built huge ceremonial bonfires. They would extinguish their hearth fires and travel to one of these bonfires.
To protect themselves while traveling from their home to these gatherings, the Celtic people would cover themselves with costumes made from animal heads and skins, meant to confuse any wandering spirits.
After the gathering, the Celts would return home and light their hearth fires with the flame from one of the bonfires for protection during the coming winter.
Fast-forward to A.D. 313 With the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, it became popular to have commemorative feasts and celebrations for saints and martyrs.
However, there were so many saints and martyrs it was impossible to dedicate one day to each of them. The solution was to honor all saints and martyrs at once.
In A.D. 609, Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon in Rome to Pope Boniface IV, who then dedicated it to St. Mary and All Martyrs on May 13. Later, Pope Gregory III dedicated an oratory in St. Peter’s Basilica on Nov. 1 in honor of all saints, in addition to those who were martyred.
In A.D. 847, Pope Gregory IV declared Nov. 1 as All Saints Day, the official day to honor past saints and martyrs. Since “hallow” was an old English term for “saint,” the associated feast was known as All Hallows and the evening prior as All Hallow’s Eve.
It is believed that All Souls Day originated in A.D. 893 when Emperor Leo VI dedicated a church to all Christian souls, since he could not dedicate it to his dead wife. Originally observed near Easter, this holiday was later moved to Nov. 2.
While All Saints Day is dedicated to honoring saints and martyrs, All Souls Day is dedicated to all those who died in the Christian faith. It is a time of prayer and remembrance for dead loved ones.
On All Souls Day, people would go door to door offering prayers for those in purgatory in exchange for pastries known as soul cakes. This practice was called “souling.” Later, this would include dressing in costumes and performing songs or other entertainment in exchange for a variety of treats.
Over the years, the Celtic traditions and the celebrations of the church would merge. This was particularly true in Ireland.
In colonial America, fall harvest festivals were popular community affairs, but the traditions of modern-day Halloween weren’t widespread until something happened with the potato. During the Irish potato famine in 1845, many Irish people immigrated to America, bringing the combined Celtic and church celebrations, which included dressing in costume, going door to door asking for treats, and carrying carved turnip lanterns. Turnip lanterns?
To ward off spirits around Halloween, the Irish would carve faces into hollowed-out turnips and place candles inside to ward off spirits like Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack was fabled to have tricked the devil on many occasions, so when Jack died, he was not allowed into heaven for his trickery — nor would the devil let him into hell. So Jack’s spirit would wander the Earth for eternity.
So that Jack might see his way, the devil gave him a single lump of burning coal which Jack placed in a carved turnip lantern. Stingy Jack with his lantern would also be known as Jack of the Lantern or Jack o’Lantern.
With pumpkins being in abundance in America, carved out pumpkins with a light in them would replace turnips as the new jack-o’-lantern.
So. as you carve out your pumpkin, take your kids trick-or-treating and enjoy an evening in your neighborhood, know that you are part of a tradition that dates back thousands of years. It’s a tradition formed from the traditions and celebrations of the Celtic new year, remembering saints and martyrs of the church and the melting pot that is America.
— Jaeckle is CFO of The Beacon, where he has worked since October 2001.