Halloween is our favorite holiday. What other time of the year do you get to dress up as your favorite character and wander around taking candy from strangers like Mom and Dad always told you not to do?
Today, Halloween is all about the costumes and the candy, but where did these traditions come from? Why do we say “trick or treat” when we ask for candy? Why do we wear masks and carve pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns — other than being able to roast the tasty pumpkin seeds as a treat? Let’s take a closer look at the history of Halloween and see if we can figure out where some of these traditions came from.
Why Do We Carve Pumpkins?
Jack-o’-lanterns are as much a part of Halloween as candy and costumes, but where did they come from, and why do we carve them out of pumpkins?
Originally, instead of using big squash like pumpkins, these little lights would be carved into turnips, beets and potatoes to scare away the spirit of Stingy Jack.
This bit of Irish folklore followed the exploits of a man named Jack who kept tricking the Devil so that his soul wouldn’t go to hell when he died. He invited the Devil to drink with him, then convinced him to turn into a coin to pay for the drinks. When he did, Jack put the coin in his pocket along with a silver cross, and would only let the Devil go if he promised not to claim his soul.
Once Jack died, God wouldn’t let him into Heaven, and since the Devil couldn’t claim his soul, he was stuck wandering the Earth. The jack-o’-lanterns are designed to scare Jack away on Halloween. Pumpkins are a lot easier to carve than turnips though, so once Irish immigrants discovered the big orange squash in the New World, pumpkin carving was born.
Why Do Kids Say Trick or Treat?
Trick or Treat is probably one of the earliest phrases we learn as children. Even the youngest are quick to figure out that saying these three words equals free candy — even if Mom and Dad get to it before they do. Trick or treating came from a tradition called ‘guising’ that dates back to the Middle Ages. Children would dress up and beg for food or money, door to door, on behalf of those who had died during the previous year. They wouldn’t say ‘trick or treat’ though — they’d dance or sing for their treats.
This tradition of dancing for your treats continued until the late 1920s, when the term ‘trick or treat’ was coined by the Blackie, Alberta Canada Herald. No real ‘tricks’ were played — but households were happy to hand out treats nonetheless. The rest, as they say, is history.
Why Do Witches Fly on Broomsticks?
Witchy imagery has changed over the years, but a few things are still the same — they’re almost always portrayed with large noses, faces covered in warts, wearing pointy hats and flying around on broomsticks.
None of this has anything to do with the appearance of modern witches — practitioners of Paganism, Wicca and other earth-based religions — so where did the warty old crone come from, and why does she ride a broom?
The history of the broom is a little bit more risqué than your average Quidditch game, and it may have had a lot to do with hallucinogenic drugs. According to legend, ancient witches would make a salve of poisonous herbs like henbane, nightshade and others and apply the ointment to themselves — specifically in their nether regions. The mucous membranes in the female genitals would allow the drugs to be absorbed quickly into the body, which could — among other things — simulate the feeling of flying.
One historian recounted an experience with an accused witch: “In rifeling the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased her staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.” According to his account, these witches would coat their broomstick with the ointment and…well, you see where we’re going with this.
Brooms are used in modern witchcraft, but not for flying. A ritual broom, or besom, is used to sweep negative energy out of a home, or to sweep evil from your path. A useful tool, but there’s no flying involved.
Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?
It isn’t Halloween without the costumes, but where did the tradition of dressing up as grotesque beasts to get free candy come from?
It actually dates back to the Celtics and the festival of Samhain, which would take place at the end of their harvesting season and before the beginning of winter. In addition to being the holiday that would mark the start of the colder half of the year, it was also supposedly the day when the dead could come back and haunt the living.
Ancient Celts would dress up as monsters or ghosts to blend in with the returning spirits so that they wouldn’t be haunted during the dark half of the year. Later, when the Catholic Church started converting many of these pagan holidays to something a little more church-friendly, it became All Saints Day, and children dressed up as angels and saints instead.
Halloween might be all about candy and costumes now, but there used to be a lot more to it. Remember that when you’re carving your pumpkins or sorting your candy haul this year.