A blend of Celtic practices, European folk traditions and Roman religious rituals is celebrated worldwide as Halloween on October 31st each year. Modern day Halloween is influenced by the Celtic holiday of Samhain, the Roman festival of Feralia, and the Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Oscillating between celebration and superstition, Halloween is the day where the dead return to earth and the people would wear costumes to ward off these roaming ghosts. Halloween is a Celtic ritual that has graduated into a secular celebration and a vast commercial enterprise.
In US, Halloween is the most popular festivals, next only to Christmas. Retailers offer large discounts on this day. Candy and costume sales are in the range of multi-billion dollars. Cobwebs, werewolves, vampires, witches are a definite stimulus to the economy in the US.
The name Halloween is a Scottish variant of All-Hollows-Even(evening), which means the night before the All Hollows Day (All Saints Day), a Catholic holiday commemorating saints and martyrs held on November 1st.
Various traditions have their roots in the Celtic, medieval, and Roman religious beliefs. Lighting of bonfires symbolizing various souls lost in purgatory. Souling refers to door-to-door offering of prayers for the dead in exchange for soul cakes and other treats. Mumming or guising consists of parading in costumes chanting rhymes and play-acting. These customs have survived and evolved into modern practices such as ‘trick-or-treat’. Pomona, an ancient Roman goddess of fruits, trees, and gardens in whose honor apple bobbing is held. Apples are thrown into a tub of water and a person has to catch one in his or her mouth as they bob round and round. The apple that has been caught has to be peeled carefully and the long strip of peel is passed thrice, sunwise round one’s head; after which it has to be thrown over your shoulder, and it falls on the ground in the shape of the initial letter of your true love’s name. Other modern customs included telling frightening ghost stories, watching horror movies, and playing pranks.
A carved pumpkin also known as Jack-o-lantern probably comes from Irish folklore. A man named Jack, who was famous as a drunkard and a trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack strikes a deal with the devil that, if he never tempts him again, he promises to let him down the tree.
After Jack dies, he is denied entrance to Heaven owing to his evil ways, but he is also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. The devil gives him a single ember to light his way through darkness. Jack keeps this ember inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
Originally the Irish used turnips as Jack’s lanterns. When the Irish immigrated to America they found pumpkins to be far more plentiful than turnips. So a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember was the Jack-o-lantern in America.
In a Jack-o-lantern, a pumpkin’s top is cut off, inside flesh scooped out; a monstrous face is carved on outside and, the lid is replaced. In the night a candle is placed inside to illuminate the effect. Tools ranging from simple knives and spoons to specialized instruments are used to hollow out the pumpkin. Printed stencils are also available for carving out complex designs.