The origin of Halloween (or All Hallows Eve) goes back to a Celtic holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow-wan), meaning summer’s end. From sundown Oct. 31 to sundown Nov. 1 was a time to honor the memory of loved ones who had died, because it was believed the veil between their realm and ours was at its thinnest. It was considered a magical night and was also referred to as All Saint’s Day. Over the centuries, the religious significance of this holiday faded, and it has become spookier and greatly commercialized.
During Samhain, Celtic folk hollowed our turnips and placed a lighted candle inside to ward off evil spirits. This was possibly done to mimic strange lights that could often be seen in local peat bogs, and were thought to be spirits. The lights were named “will-o-the-wisp,” or “Jack-o-lanterns.” When Irish settlers arrived in America, they found the pumpkin to be larger and easier to carve. Pumpkins are indigenous to the western hemisphere and were not known in Europe before early explorers took seeds back home.
Another possible origin of Jack-o-lanterns is a folk story about a farmer named Jack who tricked the Devil into not taking his soul when he died. But Jack was too sinful to enter Heaven, so he was forced to roam the Earth as a spirit, and used a burning coal inside a turnip to light his way.
Trick-or-treat, the tradition of going door-to-door to collect treats, started in Ireland hundreds of years ago. Groups of farmers would go throughout the community to collect food and other items for a village feast and bonfire to celebrate Samhain. Those who gave received a prayer for prosperity; those who did not received a curse for bad luck. When Irish Catholic immigrants came to the United States in the 1800s, the custom came with them.