Nearly 2000 years ago, a people known as the Celts occupied the land that now includes Ireland, Scotland, and much of the rest of the UK, plus part of northern France. To celebrate the end of the harvest and to prepare for the dark, cold, difficult winters, the Druids, Celtic spiritual leaders, held a celebration, known as Samhain. This marked the beginning of the New Year, about November 1st by our calendar. During this celebration, it was believed that the spirits of the dead would return to prophesy about the coming year, giving necessary warnings and information without which the Celts could not hope to survive. While animal sacrifice may or may not have been part of the Samhain celebration, the priests did wear the skins and head of animals as they told the future, and this is one of the origins of our tradition of wearing costumes at Halloween.The ghosts would also sometimes cause mischief and play cruel tricks, so to appease them, the Druids would collect food from peasants as an offering for the spirits. This is possibly one source of the tradition of trick or treating.
As Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, the old Celtic festivities became a problem. Some time in the 1800’s, when Boniface IV was the Pope, he declared a new holiday, hoping to replace Samhain and other pagan harvest festivals with All Saints Day on November 1st. Somewhat later, the Church added another holiday, All Souls Day, to honor the souls of the dead. All Saints Day was also known as All Hallows Day, and it’s eve, October 31, became known as Hallow’s eve, or Halloween.
All Souls Day also had a tradition which probably contributed to the “trick or treat” tradition. On November 2, it was customary for Christians to go door to door asking for “soul cakes,” more like bread than what we think of as cake, with currants in it. In return for the soul cakes, the visitor would promise to pray for the souls of the dead from that household, who were believed to be waiting between heaven and earth. Prayers would speed them on their journey to heaven.
When the Romans came into power, many of their customs were absorbed by the Celts. Among these was the worship of the goddess of the harvest, Pomona. Apples were her sacred fruit, and bobbing for apples is probably a remnant of some ritual of her worship.
Jack-o-Lanterns originated in Ireland, where there are no native pumpkins. They were originally hollowed out potatoes or turnips lit by candles, and they got their name from a famous trickster named Jack who is featured in many Irish folktales. When Jack died, neither God nor the Devil would take him, and so he was forced to wander the earth, looking for somewhere he could rest, with only a stub of a candle in a rotten turnip for light and warmth. In America, pumpkins were sturdier and obviously better suited for carving, so they took the place of potatoes and turnips in our Halloween tradition.
So, remember as you enjoy your Halloween frivolities with family and friends, you are tapping into traditions that are older than Christianity, from a wilder, colder, darker time in human history.