Mental Floss

The Quick 10: 10 Halloween Traditions

Stacy Conradt
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Most of us are pretty familiar with carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating, but there are plenty of other Halloween traditions out there. Some of them are from way back when, and some are just from different parts of the world. Either way, maybe you'll find something new to add to your All Hallows Eve traditions.

1. Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack, or "Jack the Smith," is likely the story that gave us the tradition of carving pumpkins. The tale originates in Ireland, where Stingy Jack boozed his way through villages, begging and manipulating and being basically an all-around loser. The Devil heard of Jack's shenanigans and decided to put an end to it, but Jack tricked him a couple of times and eventually won the Devil's assurance that he would never take Jack to Hell. Jack eventually died, but because of his sinful earthly ways, he was denied entrance to Heaven. He tried to get into Hell instead, but of course, the Devil reminded him that this was impossible. Instead, he gave Jack an ember inside of a hollowed-out turnip and made him walk the earth forever, warning people of what could happen to them. Which leads us to another tradition"¦

2. Carving turnips and rutabagas. Here we carve pumpkins, of course, and it's catching on around the world. But before we carved pumpkins, the Irish were carving rutabagas, turnips and mangelwurzels thanks to our friend Stingy Jack. When the Irish came to the U.S., these vegetables weren't nearly as common, and so they adapted the tradition to pumpkins. If you want to try your hand at carving a turnip this year, there are instructions here. It's pretty much like carving a pumpkin, but smaller and less gooey.

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postcard /

5. Dumb Cake. This was an old tradition during Hop-tu-Naa, a Celtic festival you'd have to specifically go to the Isle of Man to celebrate. Kids trick-or-treat and carry turnip lanterns, but they also sing Hop-tu-Naa songs. And in the old days, they used to have their own fortune-telling traditions. On October 31, young women would bake Dumb Cake over the hearth, including some soot from the fire in with the ingredients. When it was ready, the cake was divided up and eaten in utter silence. Then each girl would apparently walk backward to bed and expect to see her husband-to-be in a dream. There was also a tradition of sweeping ash from the fire over the hearth. In the morning, a footprint in the ash that faced in toward the fireplace indicated a birth ahead. A footprint pointing toward the door meant that someone would die.

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barmbrack /

7. Coelcerth was actually observed on November 1, but that's close enough for my purposes. It was part of a tradition of Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter in Wales. For coelcerth, a family would build a fire and write their names on stones surrounding it. If they woke up in the morning and found that a person's stone was missing, they knew that person would die in the next year. It seems to me that this would be the perfect opportunity to freak out your siblings"¦

8. Allantide is a Cornish (as in Cornwall, England) festival celebrated at the same time as Halloween. One the games commonly played worked like this: a cross, laid flat, was suspended from the ceiling, and a candle would be placed at each end. Then apples were hung from the underside of the cross. The game was for children to try to get the apples with their mouths "“ kind of like bobbing for apples in midair. If they were too slow, the candles dripped hot wax on their faces. Ummm"¦ fun?

9. Soul Cakes. In Britain, and in a similar tradition in Italy, children would go from door to door collecting "soul cakes" from neighbors. Each cake represented a soul, and every time a child ate a cake it was supposed to mean that they had freed someone from Purgatory. As a kid, I would have taken that super literally and would have been concerned about eating someone's soul.

Banana_slug_at_UCSC
Banana_slug_at_UCSC /

Do you have any Halloween traditions? Do they involve baking supplies and gastropods? Do tell. I'd love to pick up a new tradition "“ our only tradition mostly involves watching scary movies for the entire month of October.
I'm out next week, so I'll "see" you guys in November "“ have a fun Halloween!

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