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Jack-O’-Lanterns and Trick-or-Treating:

A mix of Pagan and Christian traditions

the beginning of November is approaching. It is slowly becoming colder outside, leaves start falling from the trees, giving the world all the bright colours of autumn.

Autumn calls for cuddling on the couch with a blanket, a book and a nice big mug of hot cinnamon tea, for warmer coats, forest walks, and, unfortunately, also for midterms. Luckily these first exams have passed by now and we hope many of you did well and got off to a good start for this academic year. Autumn is also the season of holidays, starting with Halloween. One of the greatest traditions of autumn, Halloween is celebrated all over the world. Pumpkins, lights, puppets, costumes, candy, it’s all part of the great tradition. The feast is celebrated much more widely in many places in America, than it is in the Netherlands. We have all seen the movies, showing the American celebrations of Halloween, but what are their traditions really?

To find out, we need to dive into the history of the holiday first. Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening,” or “All Saints Evening,” which basically means “holy evening.” It is a Christianized holiday of the Celtic Harvest Festivals, celebrated to honour the harvest of the year. The three days after the 31st of October are used to honour the dead martyrs, Saints, and other believers who have passed away.Lisa Morton summarizes the whole history of the holiday in one sentence in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween: "What began as a pagan New Year's celebration and a Christian commemoration of the dead has over time served as a harvest festival, a romantic night of mystery for young adults, an autumnal party for adults, a costumed begging ritual for children, a season for exploring fears in a controlled environment and, most recently, a heavily commercialized product exported by the United States to the rest of the world." I will now discuss two of the main traditions of the American Halloween festival, and their origins: trick-or-treating, and the carving of Jack-O’-Lanterns.

Trick or treat
The date of the 31st of October is in many cultures surrounded with folk tales, sagas and myths. This also goes for the Celtic tribes, which told sagas of spirits, battles and journeys. Jack Santino in Halloween in America describes how one of those sagas tells of a hero named Nera, who is sent by the doors to beg. In another story, she enters the fairy world through a cave. In many cultures it is believed that on All Hallows Eve, the gates between the worlds of the dead and the living are opened and the dead can enter the world of the living. These factors partly contributed to the traditon of trick-or-treating that is a major phenomenon in America. As Santino describes it: “Paying tribute to a race of gods at Samhain [the night of the 1st of November] in the saga literature parallels the folk custom of setting out food and gifts to appease wandering spirits, which in turn parallels the folk practice of giving gifts of food and drink to maskers who imitate those spirits.” (Santino)

Every year during the approach of Halloween, the internet is full of pictures of Jack-O’-Lanterns, pumpkins which have been carved or painted. People can carve the most elaborate things in a simple pumpkin, and with a small candle inside, it lights up beautifully in the dark. This tradition has multiple sources. First, it is related to the celebration of the harvest. Pumpkins, cornstalks, fruit and vegetables are abundantly present during our Halloween celebrations. All of these represent the harvest and the end of the agricultural season. Secondly, Jack-O’-Lanterns are believed to house the souls of the dead. Here, the pagan harvesting traditions and the Christian honouring of the deceased come together in a lovely, creative tradition.

by Jeanne Goossens

Works Cited

Santino, Jack. "Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances." Folklore, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 1-20

Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Reaktion Books Ltd, London. 2012.