Before Halloween costumes and trick or treating, the end of October marked the pagan festival of Samhain. Take a look back at the origins of the spooky season and how we got some of the delicious Halloween foods we enjoy today.
Halloween is a time when families carve pumpkin lanterns, horror movies take over the TV, and children go trick-or-treating for candy bars. But the history of Halloween treats is intriguing. Halloween's origins trace back to the Celtic feast day Samhain, marked by bonfires and mumming, where actors performed for food and drink. It later merged with All Saints' Day and came to the US via Irish immigrants.
Wearing costumes and going trick-or-treating are not the sole Halloween traditions with origins in Ireland. One beloved Halloween activity, the art of carving jack-o'-lanterns, is also rooted in Irish culture. It made its way to the United States following the devastating potato famine of 1846, which prompted a substantial influx of Irish immigrants.
According to an old Irish folktale, a man named Jack, known for his misdeeds, found himself in a grim predicament upon his death. His wicked dealings with the devil were so vile that he was denied entry into both heaven and hell.
Condemned to wander in purgatory, Jack ingeniously carved a turnip and placed a burning coal inside, creating a lantern to guide his lost soul. Every Halloween, Irish communities would carve their own turnips and position them in their windows to ward off the cursed Jack and any other wandering spirits.
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As the Irish populace immigrated to North America, they adapted this tradition, replacing turnips with pumpkins, which were more readily available consequently, the familiar pumpkin jack-o'-lanterns that adorn our doorsteps and porches every autumn have become an enduring part of the Halloween tradition and have led to the pumpkin being an integral flavour during Halloween in the form of sweets and pies.
Apples too played a significant role. Apple bobbing and Snap Apple Night were popular activities, with bobbing signifying marriage. Peeling apples to reveal future initials was another tradition. Nut Crack Night featured hazelnuts and chestnuts, some even burned to find sweethearts.
When the Romans arrived in Britain around 55 B.C., they brought with them the apple tree, which they considered a symbol of abundance, dedicated to their goddess Pomona. Meanwhile, the Celts saw a sacred significance in the five-sided star shape at the core of the apple, incorporating it into their Samhain festival by tying apples to evergreen boughs as offerings to the spirits of autumnal wealth. Apples also played a role in divination and fortune-telling during the pre-Christian era, even down to the seeds.
Though the origins of apple bobbing are unclear, it's believed to have emerged during this period. While we lack concrete evidence, historical records from mediaeval times mention this activity. It experienced a revival in North America, particularly in New England during Colonial times. Although the divination aspect became less serious, teenage girls eagerly participated in the hope that the first to retrieve an apple from the water would be the next to marry.
Variations of this tradition included attempting to eat apples hung on a rope without using hands, with the belief that the fastest eater would be the next to wed. After acquiring their apples, girls would peel them in one continuous strip and toss the peel over their heads, anticipating it to land in the shape of their future husband's first initial. Another superstition involved placing bobbed apples under pillows before sleeping to dream of their future spouses.
Another old world tradition that accompanied Samhain was the baking of soul cakes. Historically, soul cakes were linked to intriguing customs. Some accounts suggest that these cakes were baked and used as part of a peculiar lottery during bonfire celebrations. Those who picked the burnt cake supposedly became the human sacrifice believed to ensure bountiful crops in the following year. Alternatively, soul cakes may have been playfully tossed about to appease evil spirits condemned to wander in animal form.
However, as time progressed, by the 8th century, soul cakes underwent a transformation. They became sanctified and associated with more civilised practices. Families started using them to compensate beggars who visited on All Souls' Eve and offered to say prayers for the souls of their departed loved ones. It was a simple exchange – one cake given meant one soul saved, a small price to pay for such a meaningful gesture.
In other regions, soul cakes found their way into the hands of costumed entertainers known as mummers, who would merrily go from house to house during Halloween. Some even speculate that today's trick-or-treaters are the modern descendants of these mummers, continuing the age-old tradition in their own playful way.
In the 1930s, organised trick-or-treating emerged in response to Great Depression pranks. World War II temporarily halted it due to sugar rationing. However, the 1950s saw candy manufacturers promoting their treats, especially during the baby boom. In the 1970s, wrapped factory-produced candy became the preferred treat, driven by safety concerns and a Halloween candy scare fueled by media reports of potential tampering.
So when you get dressed up this year for your Halloween bash, think back to the long history and many traditions that have shaped how we celebrate this spookiest of days.