7 Burning Halloween Questions: Answered!

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As you put the finishing touches on your costume and stock up on candy for the neighborhood kids, let's take a minute to reflect on the origins of these and other Halloween traditions.


Halloween got its start thousands of years ago, and we can thank the Celts for getting things going. They celebrated a holiday known as Samhain on October 31, one of the four "quarter days" of the calendar, and possibly the Celtic New Year. They believed that the dead could walk the earth on Samhain and cause mischief but, on the plus side, their presence also made it easier for the Druid priests to predict the future.


On Samhain, a big bonfire would be built and sacrifices made to the dead, while the common folk would dress up in animal skins and try to tell their own fortunes (probably with the same success rate as the "professionals"). The costumes, Halloween's most enduring tradition, were donned either to calm the spirits or to blend in with them, so as to not incur their wrath.


Starting in 43 CE, the Roman war machine rolled through Britain and conquered a large chunk of the Celtic population. But the Romans, always the master conquerors, cleverly blended two of their own holidays with the Celtic Samhain to make the transition to Roman rule more seamless. One holiday was a celebration of the dead (easy enough to mix with Samhain) and the other was a celebration of the Pomona, the goddess of fruit and tress, where, supposedly, the tradition of bobbing for apples takes root.

When Christianity arrived on the scene, the hodgepodge holiday again was forced to change. Like the previous blending, the Christians incorporated their own holidays into the Samhain tradition. November 1 became All-hallow's, a day to celebrate the saints and martyrs, and October 31 became All-hallow's Even ("Even" being short for "evening," and providing the "n" in "Halloween"). Through the magic of etymology, All-hallow's Even became Halloween.


Why, the Americans of course!

But it didn't happen right away. Puritans in New England suppressed the superstitious holiday. In the South, however, where religious piety was less important, Halloween was celebrated in much the same way it was in Europe. But a great tide of immigration in the late 1800s brought a new life to the holiday, and no amount of piety could contain it. Through the years, the "spookiness" of Halloween was replaced with a more wholesome community feel, out of which grew trick-or-treating and, as towns celebrated together, stripped any religious significance away. Finally, after many thousands of years and many cultural modifications, we arrived at a holiday involving witches, costumes, candy, mischief, the deceased and pumpkins.


Making vegetable lanterns can be traced back to Great Britain and Ireland, where carving turnips, beets and potatoes had been a fall tradition for many centuries. According to an Irish myth, a man named Stingy Jack once had a drink with the Devil and, when he didn't want to pay for it, he convinced the Devil to turn into a coin. However, Stingy Jack lived up to his name and pocketed the coin next to a cross, keeping the Devil locked in a monetary state until he struck a deal with Jack to leave him alone and not claim his soul for Hell upon his death. When Jack did die, Heaven rejected him and, true to his word, so did the Devil.

As punishment for his trickery, the Devil sent Jack out to wander the earth forever with a single coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way. To Irish children he was Jack of the Lantern or, as the Irish are wont to do when confronted with an "of the," Jack O' Lantern.

But Jack-o'-Lanterns were not a part of Halloween celebrations in Britain; it would take a new continent to cement that tradition. The first mention of a Jack-o'-Lantern being part of a Halloween celebration comes from a Canadian paper which, in 1866, wrote, "The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle."


Simple. Pumpkins abounded in America and were much better for carving and illuminating than any of the aforementioned veggies. We can assume the tradition of smashing pumpkins originated very soon after the carved pumpkin entered the Halloween celebration in the late 1800s.


Like Christmas and the candy cane and Easter with its marshmallow Peeps, Halloween, too, has a signature sweet: the mysterious candy corn. Like some annual plague, the small cone-shaped candies infect our stores and molars each year before vanishing as quickly as they came. Comedian Lewis Black has a theory about candy corn: "All the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1914. They never had to make it again. We never eat enough of it. We only eat two or three or four pieces apiece. So, literally, after Halloween the candy corn companies send out their minions. And they go from garbage can to garbage can and collect the corn and throw it back in the bags. And it appears next year." Good theory, but not quite right.

Nobody knows who invented candy corn, but we do know it began to appear in the 1880s, and we know the first company to make it commercially was the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia. Soon after, the Goelitz Confectionery Company began production of candy corn in Cincinnati in 1898. The process at first was daunting: a candy blend was mixed up, heated and then poured by hand into molds. Each mold needed three separate pours to achieve the tri-color glory that is candy corn. Today the process is mechanized and the tri-color composition isn't nearly as impressive as it was to the people of the 19th century, but Goelitz has never changed the recipe and they continue to make the candy to this day. The Goelitz Confectionery Company even went on to invent another fairly popular candy a few decades later, although they had to change the company name to do so. Today they are known as Jelly Belly.

All photos via iStock.

This story originally ran in 2008.

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