Origins of Halloween – pumpkins, demons and love matches


Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886. From the Tate collection.

It’s October, and everything’s orange and has bats on it. As with many things, I thought I knew all about Halloween – used to be a pagan holiday, was co-opted by the Catholic church into All Hallows’ Eve and now is a roving nightmare of rubber masks and German heavy metal. But what actually is All Hallows’ Eve and why are there people at my front door?! I’m watching Vikings, I don’t have time for this pagan nonsense!

Before we get into all that, let’s head back to the original Celtic festival of Samhain, held at the end of October or beginning of November to mark the arrival of winter. In old Irish mythology, this was a time of gathering tribes, feasting and games.

Bonfires were lit on hilltops, possibly as a cleansing ritual with people jumping over them or driving cattle between them. In some places the hearth in houses was left to die down and then relit using a brand from a communal bonfire.

It was also believed that this was when a doorway to the Otherworld opened and allowed the souls of the dead to pass across into this world. There are also stories of fairy mounds opening to allow the Sidhe (think of the fairies in a Midsummer Night’s Dream – more nature spirits or gods than Tinkerbell) or other great forces of nature or darkness to pass through, sometimes requiring a sacrifice to appease them. Trick or treating may have derived from the belief that fairies would disguise themselves as beggars and ask for food, and punish those who refused to share.

People dressed up as animals or wore animal skulls and made noise to scare spirits away. It was also a good time of year for magic and divination, with one example I found of telling fortunes by throwing marked stones into a bonfire. If your stone couldn’t be found again afterwards, it was believed that you would die the following year.

Influence of the Roman Empire

In a massive example of oversimplification, the Roman Empire ruled what is now England and Wales from 43AD to 410AD and brought with them their own festivals. Some think that Feralia, the feast day held at the end of a nine-day festival of the dead, was an influence on the modern Halloween as this was when evil spirits were sent away to the spirit world for another year. Failure to perform the rites correctly could leave these spirits remaining as ghosts.


Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833.

Apple bobbing is also thought to stem from this merging of Celtic and Roman beliefs. For the Celts, apples were used in divination and tied to evergreen branches. For Romans, the apple was the symbol of Pomona, the goddess of orchards. It is thought apple bobbing then developed as a way of divining love matches. One tale is that if a girl put the apple she had bobbed underneath her pillow she would dream of her future soul mate. However, how she managed to sleep whilst balanced on top of an apple isn’t explained. Another game from which bobbing might have developed is snap-apple where a stick has an apple tied on one end and a lit candle on the other. This is suspended from the ceiling and spun, so the game is to bite the apple and not get a face-full of candle. This is a great excerpt from a newspaper describing the game in 1850:

See that strong, young fellow: he is the best man in the country round at throwing the sledge, and yet he cannot for the life of him catch the apple from the cross though his great jaws open wide enough to encompass a pumpkin. There he goes again with a dash as if it were made of granite, but the apple has turned only the faster from him, and the avenging candle comes swift upon him, covering his chops with grease and smut, and singeing his whiskers, and so he retired from the vain pursuit, for the laugh is loud against him.

Just to show, you might be able to toss your sledge around, but it doesn’t mean you can escape the wrath of a candle spinning on a stick.

Christianity and All Hallows’ Eve

All Saint’s Day was a celebration of the saints held originally in May, Hallow being another name for a holy person, but this was officially moved to 1 November after a request by Pope Gregory VI. The day before therefore became All Hallows’ Eve and the day after, All Souls’ Day. This three day period was to remember the dead, with All Souls’ Day reserved for praying for those in purgatory. From the medieval period onwards, the poor went from house to house offering to pray for departed loved ones, in return for food. These were known as ‘soulers’ and were given spiced soul cakes, and could be another origin of trick or treating.

The word Halloween as a shortening of All Hallow’s Eve is said to have formed as far back as the 15th Century, and the Christian influence changed the old Celtic traditions of fairies into stories about the Devil and witches. One story is that people who had died with unfinished business could come back on that night, so people disguised themselves as a way of tricking the ghost. However, outside of the Celtic areas the holiday wasn’t particularly celebrated beyond fortune telling games using apples or nuts, instead being superseded in Protestant England by Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night on 5 November, remembering the Gunpower Plot of 1605.

Whilst Queen Victoria presided over a torch lit procession and effigy burning at Balmoral in 1876, for more modest households the matchmaking side of Halloween apparently continued to dominate in the Victorian era, with a lot of party games revolving around finding out the initial or character of the man a young lady would marry. One such parlour game involved the pouring of molten lead through the handle of a key into a pan of water, with the shape of the dribbled lead forming signs as to who they may be. Another was to eat an apple whilst looking in a mirror, and you may see the reflection of your intended, though in true Victorian disdain for health and safety or practical common sense, a variation was to look in the mirror whilst walking backwards down the cellar steps.

Current Halloween traditions


A turnip Jack-O’-Lantern. By Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During the 1880s whilst the English were busy staring into mirrors, Scottish and Irish emigrants took their traditions with them across the Atlantic. One such tradition was the carving of Jack-O-Lanterns.

Originally turnips were used, with one idea being that this came from the story of Stingy Jack who invited the Devil to drink with him, but didn’t want to pay for the drink. He tricked the Devil to turn himself into a coin, and then kept the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross to trap him in that form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, with the promise that Jack would be left alone for a year and that the Devil would not get his soul when he died. After a year had gone the Devil appeared, but once again Jack tricked him into climbing a tree and picking a piece of fruit. Once the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross on the trunk and extracted another promise from the Devil that he wouldn’t come after Jack for another ten years. After Jack died, God refused him entry into heaven and the Devil couldn’t take his soul, so instead condemned Jack to walk the Earth with a burning coal. Jack put the coal inside a hollowed-out turnip and roams at night, so people scared him off by carving faces into potatoes and turnips and placing them in windows or near doors.


Van Gogh’s Starry Night carved into a pumpkin by the Maniac Pumpkin Carvers. Credit: MARC EVAN/AP PHOTO/MANIAC PUMPKIN CARVERS.

As anybody who has tried to cut up a turnip knows, they’re a pain in the arse, so when they reached America after escaping the potato famine and came across pumpkins, which were more plentiful and easier to carve, the tradition evolved into carving this fruit instead.

Trick or treating also became a more widespread concept in America, albeit later on in the early 1900s. Thought to have developed from the Celtic traditions of dressing as demons to hide from spirits crossing over and the poor begging for soul cakes, the first reference to ‘trick or treat’ was in 1927 in the Alberta Canada Herald, which reported youths going around houses and demanding treats. It seems to have taken a while to become mainstream however, with ‘A Mother’ writing a letter to The Fresno Bee in 1941 saying:

As a mother of two children I wish to register indignation at the “trick or treat” racket imposed on residents on Hallowe’en night by the youngsters of this city.… This is pure and simple blackmail and it is a sad state of affairs when parents encourage their youngsters to participate in events of this kind.

In the intervening years however, Halloween has become a huge holiday in the US. Last year it was estimated that Americans spent $8.4 billion on the celebration, expected to increase to $9.1 million this year. The UK has taken longer to warm to the idea, with a 2013 YouGov survey showing that 70% of responders would prefer it if trick or treaters didn’t come to their house, but spending is increasing (£310 million last year) and 40% of people now say that they would be celebrating Halloween.

One final cautionary note though if you are trick or treating this year; you might not always get what you expect. One woman in Long Island was convicted in 1964 of giving out packages of ant poison, steel wool and dog biscuits to children she thought were too old to beg for sweets. Maybe stick to dressing up your dog as a pumpkin instead.


1 thought on “Origins of Halloween – pumpkins, demons and love matches

  1. Pingback: Deviant burials and vampire myths | Cat's Miscellany

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