For most of us, Halloween is just an excuse to party, eat wayyyyy too many sweets and cuddle up with a loved one to watch a scary movie. It’s all fun, but why do we celebrate Halloween, anyway?
You know that moment when you were 6 and got given an apple instead of a sweet treat? Do you remember dressing up as Harry Potter characters, receiving enough candy to tide you over for the next five years and watching scary movies that would keep you awake for two weeks straight?
I don’t know about you, but this is exactly what my mind conjures up when I hear the word ‘Halloween’. Walking through Covent Garden earlier this evening, I spotted some real pretty pumpkins (and promptly took some photos!)… But on the bus home, I got thinking: why do we carve pumpkins? What makes them so ‘Halloweeny’?
Origins of Halloween… And why do we celebrate Halloween, anyway?
Although nowadays Halloween may just be a good excuse for a party and to eat lots of candy, it hasn’t always been this way… The word Halloween itself comes from a shortening of the term All Hallows’ Eve (the day before All Saints Day- or ‘Toussaint’ in French).
Halloween can also be known by ‘Hallowe’en‘ and ‘Allhalloween‘. In the Christian calendar, Halloween is traditionally the start of a three-day period of remembrance for saints, martyrs and all deceased people. It’s widely thought by many that Halloween derived from Celtic traditions.
Scholars claim that Halloween finds its beginnings in Celtic Pagan Harvest festivals. Other scholars dispute this and believe that Halloween is completely Christian in its roots. In modern folklore, it is supposedly the night of the year when the veil between this world and the next is thinnest. Hence why we have fancy-dress of ghosts and traditionally watch horror films.
A brief history of pumpkin carving
So now we know the answer to ‘why do we celebrate Halloween?’, the question of the pumpkin arises. Well, for starters, pumpkins aren’t the first fruit or vegetable that people have carved for decoration and ritualistic purposes. Records suggest that people were carving out gourds as far back as 10,000 years ago…
Pumpkins are usually carved with grotesque faces because they supposedly represented evil spirits. In doing so, the evil-faced gourds were meant to ward off ‘Will-o’-the-wisps’. In legend, these are strange lights that appear to travellers at night (usually around marshy areas), attempting to lure them off course and into danger.
Stories tell that these ‘wisps‘ are evil ghosts and malicious fairies who wish to do the traveller harm. The term Jack O’ Lantern for pumpkin carvings traces its roots all the way back to 17th century Britain. Strangely enough, Jack o’ Lanterns weren’t always carved pumpkins but… turnips! (or potatoes or beetroots).
If I’m honest, I’m pretty glad we normally carve pumpkins now. Just one look at a carved turnip is enough to give me nightmares for weeks! Image: A traditionally carved Irish turnip from the musuem of Country Life in Ireland.
The tale of Jack of the Lantern
The name ‘Jack’ comes from a myth that is told is various ways throughout Europe. The story goes that there once lived a lazy, deceitful man named Jack. Fleeing from a crime he had committed one dark and stormy night, he encountered Satan.
Satan claimed that it was time for Jack to die. Jack, being cunning, managed to trick the devil by stripping him of his powers through the use of a Christian cross. Satan had no choice but to bargain with him, promising Jack that he wouldn’t take his soul when he died.
Cunning Jack managed to trick the devil by stripping him of his powers through the use of a Christian cross. Satan had no choice but to bargain with him, agreeing that he wouldn’t take his soul when he died. However, as there always seems to be, there was a catch.
When Jack died, he was too sinful to be allowed into heaven. His earlier deal with Satan ensured that Jack was also banned from hell. He was quite literally in between a rock and a hard place… Jack was stuck on earth. Taunting him, Satan gave Jack an eternal ember.
Jack carved out a turnip and placed the ember into it, forever wandering the earth, lantern in hand. From that point on, travellers would occasionally spot him as a ‘will-o’-the-wisp‘. Jack was doomed to forever roam the earth, known as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack o’ Lantern…