Samhain is referenced dating back over a thousand years ago in 9th century literature from Ireland, as a gathering and feast held to close out the harvest season and to mark the beginning of winter. It was during this time where ancient burial mounds were opened to serve as portals to the Otherworld. In Celtic mythology, the Otherworld is often depicted as a place where deities as well as those who passed during the year, would come back to visit their homes. It was considered a supernatural realm; a place where youth, beauty, health, and joy were all in abundance.
Traditionally, Samhain was observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and throughout other Celtic lands, similar festivals were held. As with other Celtic festivals, ritualistic bonfires were lit upon hilltops during Samhain. While not prominent today, bonfires do still occur during Samhain in the Scottish Highlands, the Isle of Man, parts of Wales and other areas of Scotland. The bonfires supposedly served varying purposes, from mimicking the sun to hold back the darkness of the impending winter months to symbolically cleansing evil by burning and destroying harmful influences.
Not everyone likes having spirits wandering around or near their homes and the same applied to Samhain. During the festival, people would wear costumes attempting to ward off spirits.
Trick-or-Treating, as we know it today, was likely influenced by mumming, guising and souling. Mumming (or mummers, as they were called) were typically men in costume who acted out folk plays going from house to house. Guising was an act of dressing up in costume, going door to door and at that time, typically asking for materials for the bonfire or food and drinks for the festival. In medieval times, souling became a popular Christian tradition. Souling referred to a soul cake or soulmass-cake, which is a sweetened shortbread biscuit in remembrance of the dead which was handed out from households. There’s the treat so where’s the trick?
The trick is often associated with an empty threat, such as mischief or some misfortune which will fall upon the property if they were not given a treat!
During Samhain, and really any other time, traveling around the dark isn’t a great idea without something to light your way. Traditionally, turnips were hallowed out and used as a lantern, often carved with grotesque faces. Serving not just a lantern, but these were also placed on windowsills to ward off evil spirits or represented other spirits or supernatural entities.
Wonder where pumpkins fit into all of this? You can thank Stingy Jack.
What began as carving turnips or even large potatoes and lighting a candle inside of them takes us back to Ireland. In Irish folklore, there is a legend about a man called “Stingy Jack.” Jack supposedly invited the Devil to have a drink with him then tricked the Devil into turning himself into a coin so Jack could pay for the drink. When the Devil agreed, Jack, stingy as he was and not wanting to pay for the drink, put the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross so the Devil had to remain trapped as a coin. He was only set free after agreeing to not bother Jack for a year from that time. The bargain also stipulated that if Jack died, the Devil couldn’t take his soul.
As it would happen, Jack died shortly thereafter. Duping the Devil wasn’t exactly looked upon highly by the Almighty so Jack was not granted entry into heaven and the Devil kept his word and would not take Jack's soul. Legend has it that Jack was cast out into the darkness, with only a burning coal, which he placed in a carved-out turnip, doomed to roam the earth forever. The Irish referred to him as Jack of the Lantern, or as we know it today, jack-o-lantern.
The traditions of Samhain were brought over to North America and popularized primarily by the Scots and Irish, so why Halloween and not Samhain?
All Saint’s Day, equally referred to as All Hallows’ Day or All Hallows’ Eve / Evening, was established by the Roman Catholic church in the 8th century, and took place on November 1st. Some believe that this day was inspired directly by the festival of Samhain. It was established as a day of remembrance of all those who departed, not just exclusive to saints. This celebration was identified as evening by name as the Celtic day lasted from sundown to sundown. With the contraction of All Hallows’ Evening, you end up with Hallowe’en - the modern Halloween!