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Halloween Traditions: Jack O’lanterns, Costumes and Candy-Oh My!

Halloween is the second most celebrated holiday in America only outshined by Christmas. Halloween brings in over $300 Million in annual revenue in haunted attractions ticket sales. Further, it is estimated that 80% of those attractions are operated by charities. And in 2022, it is projected that Americans will spend a whopping $10.6 BILLION! But what makes Halloween so special? In 1921 Anoka, MN celebrated the first citywide Halloween Celebration. Thankyou Anoka! Now, millions of people dress up in costume every year, either living out their fantasies, or nightmares. But where did the custom of trick-or treating originate?

Families flock to pumpkin patches all October long in search of the perfect pumpkin for their jack o’lantern. Keene,NH setting a record in 2013 for the most jack o’lanterns lit at once with 30,581! Why do we carve pumpkins and why are they called Jack-O-Lanterns? Answer: Once upon a time, there was a man called Stingy Jack.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

The following year, the devil returned, and Jack tricked him into climbing a tree to pick fruit. While the devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk and trapped the devil once again. He would not free the devil until he promised not to bother Jack for ten years.

Jack died soon afterward, and God would not let him into Heaven. While the devil, still upset over the trick Jack had played on him, would not allow him into Hell. Instead, he sent Jack off into the darkness with nothing but a burning ember of coal to light his way. Jack put the ember into a carved-out turnip and has been wandering the world ever since. He became known as Jack of the Lantern and Later Jack O'Lantern. An alternate tale has Jack being granted three wishes by an angel, yet he uses those wishes for selfish purposes. The ending for poor Jack is always the same, being barred from both Heaven and Hell. Early Irish and Scottish people would carve scary faces on turnips and potatoes. These would be left at the windows and door to frighten away evil spirits. It was not until their descendants immigrated to America that the tradition of carving pumpkins was born.

Halloween Arrives in the Colonies

The first celebrations of Halloween in Colonial America mostly included parties and town festivals held to celebrate the harvest much like its predecessor, Samhain. Here, neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other's fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured ghost stories and mischievous pranks of all kinds. Due to the wave of mostly Irish immigrants flooding America in the mid-1800’s, Halloween began to become popular nationally. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn celebrations were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country. (“Halloween: Origins, Meaning & Traditions - HISTORY”)

Trick or Treat

Traditionally, during the Samhain and Autumnal festivities celebrated in the old country, poor citizens would beg for food. Families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice was referred to as "going a-souling” and was eventually taken up by children. They would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money. Borrowing from this tradition, people in America began to dress in costumes going door to door asking for food, money, and treats. This began our modern tradition of Trick-or-Treat. By the end of the century however, due to an increase in crime, people were encouraged to celebrate Halloween with parties and community get togethers. There was a push to take all frightful images out of the celebrations, therefore causing the religious and superstitious overtones of the festivities to be forgotten. It was not until the 1950’s that the trick-or-treat tradition as we know it was revived and took hold.

Fantasies and Nightmares

"The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots." (“Halloween Dressing”)

As related in last week’s blog about Halloween, in ancient times winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies ran low, and the long dark nights were a time of constant fear and worry. On Halloween, or Samhain, it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world. People thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by ghosts, villagers would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. (“History of Halloween Flashcards | Quizlet”) This became yet another practice brought to America by European immigrants.

Halloween Takes Over the World!

Thanks to American schools, universities, and ex-pats, Halloween is beginning to be celebrated all over the world. In places such as Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales Halloween is celebrated with a unique mixture of modern fanfare and ancient traditions. While children trick-or-treat and families carve pumpkins, it is still a time to honor the dead. Many households will offer traditional soul-cakes to the living and the dead as well as a glass of wine left for refreshing the spirit. Candles are lit and at midnight is a moment of silence in honor of the dearly departed. Many places still celebrate with a traditional bonfire to light the way. It is also a celebrated with spooky tours such as a pub crawl of haunted places and tours of the Edinburgh or London dungeons.

Meanwhile, Halloween in Japan has taken on a life of its own since it was first celebrated at Tokyo Disneyland in 2000. While Americans tend to wear basic costumes from big box stores, the Japanese go all out with quality cosplay ranging from cute to frightening. In Japan, Halloween celebrations burst out onto the streets in manic zombie runs, flash mobs, and street parties.

Other Asian areas such as Hong Kong, Seoul, and Taipei are also beginning their own Halloween traditions thanks to Americanization and clever marketing. Trick or Treating is also becoming popular for children in these areas. In other areas of the world, such as Russia and Poland, the downfall of the Soviet Regime in the 1990’s ushered in an influx of Western tourists. These tourists brought with them Halloween costume parties which are popular in nightclubs.

Although Halloween is by far the spookiest night of the year, it is also one of the most fun and financially lucrative. It has become celebrated throughout the world in various ways. But no matter how you celebrate, remember, "The farther we've gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we've come to need Halloween." (Paula Curan)

Thank you for reading! Please be sure to tune in to our podcast this Friday evening (here or wherever you listen) for more content. Please like, share, and subscribe!

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