Halloween is anything but a celebration of evil, though the Jack-o’-Lanterns which are so familiar and traditional have represented the celebration for centuries, these venerable lighted vegetables first surfacing the place the festival originated, Ireland.
A traditional Irish myth tells of the man dubbed Stingy Jack – pronounced stingee, as in mean – who invited the Devil to drink with him, and not wanting to pay, persuaded the Devil to turn himself into a coin, which Jack would supposedly use to pay. Once the transformation was complete, however, Jack put the coin in his pocket beside a cross, so that Satan could not change back.
He did in time let the devil go, on condition that Jack be left alone for a year, should he die his soul would not be claimed by hell. When the year was up, Jack conned the hapless devil again, getting him to climb a fruit tree before carving a sign of the cross into the bark below the cursing Satan, who had to guarantee Jack ten more years of freedom before being allowed back down to the ground.
As fortune would have it, Jack died only a short time later, an unseemly figure who was by all accounts not at all welcome in heaven. In the most bizarre twist of fate, the gates of hell were barred to him also, because the devil was so incensed at having been tricked so often.
Keeping his word not to claim Jack’s soul, he banished him instead to an eternity in the darkness, using a burning coal for light which Jack placed into his favourite vegetable, a hollowed-out turnip, before setting off on his never ending journey.
A corruption of the term All Hallows Eve, which actually falls on November 1, and is known as All Hollows or All Saints Day to Catholics, the festival stems from 835 AD for the church, but in reality goes back thousands of years to the Celtic peoples, who worshipped nature and the sun god, one of many deities.
November 1 every year saw a festival marking the end of the sun season and the beginning of the season of cold and dark. Druids, Celtic priests would meet in sacred oak forests to offer sacrifices of crops and animals, dancing around fires to mark the changing of the seasons.
Celtic lore said that space-time rules were suspended on this night, so could intermingle with the living, coming back in search of living bodies to possess, so October 31 nights would see fires put out and people dressing up as ghouls to fool the spirits.
As dawn broke, Druid priests gave glowing embers to each family to start new cooking fires to keep homes warm and free from evil spirits. This was Samhain, a festival lasting three days that was the forerunner to Halloween, still celebrated in Celtic countries today
Halloween reached America in the 1840’s, taken there by Irish immigrants, escaping the potato famine, though Trick-or-treating originated with a 9th century European custom. Christians would, on All souls day, make house calls begging for soul cakes, square bread with currants, in return for which prayers were said on behalf of the dead, who remained in limbo for a time after death, prayer expediting the passage to heaven of their souls.
It was those immigrants to the US, finding pumpkins plentiful, who made them into the traditional American Jack-O-Lantern, and Halloween today is celebrated with tremendous enthusiasm and imagination around the world, though nowhere with quite the zeal that the American public display. In reality a celebration of seasonal change, Halloween really is nothing to do with horror, but everything to do with hope.