Halloween Traditions: Why Do People Wear Costumes, Carve Pumpkins, and Trick or Treat?

halloween house
Halloween House, Image Courtesy of Salvatore Vuono, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why People We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

Halloween has its roots in the old Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts believed that the dead journeyed the earth on this day as they traveled to the otherworld, mingling with live humans and supernatural creatures along the way. To assist, appease, and protect themselves against the dead, the Celts lit bonfires and offered sacrifices of food and drink.

The wearing of costumes can be traced to the practice of “mumming.” Mummers donned costumes and went from door to door, providing entertainment in exchange for food and drink. However, wearing costumes may have started as a way of mimicking the dead so that supernatural beings would leave the living alone.

Centuries later, children in parts of Scotland, Ireland, and England were still engaging in a form of mumming, which became known as “guising.” Costumed kids when from door to door begging for food or money, and sometimes playing tricks on homeowners who failed to provide anything.

Although people may hold other types of costume events throughout the year, Halloween costumes are differentiated by their focus on scary, supernatural beings that evoke the symbolism of magic and the undead. Witches, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, and devils have always been favourites, though in more recent years, pop cultural icons such as movie and TV stars, cartoon characters, and top political figures have also been popular.

Why Do Kids Trick or Treat?

The origins of trick-or-treating can be traced to the celebration of Samhain by the ancient Celts of Europe. The Celts believed that on October 31, the barrier between the worlds of the spirits and the living dissolved and the dead, along with various mystical creatures, walked among the living as they made their way to the otherworld. Christian missionaries sought to eradicate these beliefs, but were never fully successful in doing so.

Samhain, later named All Hallows’ Eve and eventually shortened to Hallowe’en, continued to be a night in which the dead were both honoured and feared. A practice called “mumming” arose, which involved donning costumes to mimic dead spirits. The Celts would leave offerings of food and drink to appease the undead and support them along their journey, and the mummers would go door to door in the guise of spirits and other inhuman creatures, often performing entertaining antics in exchange for snacks and beverages. However, costumes were also worn by the living to trick the dead into believing that the living were also deceased, as it was believed that the dead would not attempt to frighten or harm their own kind.

Later, during the medieval era, a similar (though less entertaining) practice, called “souling” arose. Soulers were poor people who went from door to door requesting food and drink in exchange for praying for the dead.

Mumming and souling eventually evolved into the practice of “guising,” whereby costumed children went begging from door to door and sometimes played pranks on homeowners who failed to provide food or money. This custom was later brought to North America by Irish and Scottish immigrants. However, for many years, trick-or-treating was only done by small numbers of children (mostly boys) in immigrant communities who went around begging in crude masks or with soot-blackened faces on Halloween night.

Trick-or-treating, the modern incarnation of mumming, souling, and guising, became widely popular in North America during the last century. Although there is the implicit threat to play a prank on any homeowner who does not make a sacrifice of treats to these masked visitors, the majority of trick-or-treaters focus solely on the treat aspect of the activity. When tricks are played, they are usually annoying, but not exceptionally harmful (eggs thrown at windows, toilet paper wrapped around trees, etc.), though more serious vandalism is occasionally a problem.

Why Do People Carve Pumpkins for Halloween?

As strange as it may seem, we carve pumpkins (jack-o-lanterns) because of a trickster who harassed the devil and failed to pay his bar tab. The Irish legend that gave rise to pumpkin carving, which dates back to the the 1600s, featured a blacksmith known as Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack liked playing pranks, and the devil was not exempt from his trickery. Jack once lured the devil to the top of a tree and trapped him there by carving crosses in it, only letting him down when Satan promised never to take Jack’s soul into hell.

Despite Jack’s propensity for pranks, the devil took him up on his invitation to a pub night. At the evening’s end, Jack said he had no cash, so the devil turned himself into a coin to pay the bar tab. However, Jack kept the coin and again used a cross, this time to prevent the devil from escaping Jack’s pocket and returning to his regular form. Jack refused to set him free until Satan reiterated his promise that Jack would never go to hell.

When Jack eventually died, heaven rejected him due to his life of sinning, so he wandered through the darkness, trapped between worlds. The devil must have had a soft spot for Stingy Jack, as he took pity on his old harasser, giving him an ember from hell’s fires to light his way through the darkness. Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the ember inside so that the little flame could be carried easily through the dark realm in which he was doomed to dwell forever. Will-o’-the-wisps (hovering lights caused by the combustion of natural gasses produced by decomposing plants in marshy areas) were thought to be the light from Stingy Jack’s turnip as he walked between the worlds.

As the story of Stingy Jack spread, people took up the practice of carving turnips, beets, and potatoes and placing burning embers or coals inside them. These jack-o’-lanterns  were thought to provide protection against spirits like Stingy Jack who dwelt in the darkness, though they could also be used by children to trick their friends into thinking Stingy Jack was nearby.

When they came to North America, immigrants from the UK began carving pumpkins because they were far easier to work with than smaller vegetables, and they started lighting them with long-burning candles rather than embers or coals. Over time, these jack-o’-lanterns became decorative features rather than defenses against dark spirits or props for children’s pranks.

Although jack-o-lantern (a shortening of jack-of-the-lantern) is the best known term for carved vegetables lit from within, they have also been called fairy lights, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, fool’s fire, and will-o’-the-wisps.

References:

    • Conradt, S. (22 October 2014). Why Do We Carve Pumpkins? MentalFloss.com.
    • Eveleth, R. (18 October 2012). The History of Trick Or Treating is Weirder Than You Thought. SmithsonianMag.com.
    • HalloweenHistory.org. (2015).
    • HalloweenMagazine.com. (2009). FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions.
    • Lembeck, E. (22 October 2009). The History of Carving Pumpkins. MotherEarthLiving.com.
    • Santino, J. (2009). Halloween: The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows. The American Folklife Center.
    • Soniac, M. (24 October 2012). What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns? MentalFloss.com.

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