Halloween's coming up, and that means we're all going to be dressing up in ridiculous costumes, getting drunk and trying not to talk politics with the guy in the Obama mask. I'll do my part by giving you guys something else to discuss at the Halloween party.
1) Like with most things, scholars debate the origins of Halloween. I guess if you're a scholar, you've got to spice life up somehow.
Some scholars insist that the origins of Halloween go back to the Roman Empire. These people claim they can detect “Halloween-y” elements in such ancient Roman festivals as Parentalia, a nine-day celebration honoring dead ancestors, or Pomona, a festival honoring the goddess of tree-fruit.
Then again, you're always going to have someone giving credit to the Romans. They would've wanted it that way.
2) Most scholars – that is, the ones who didn't draw the short straws in the pre-debate topic-assignment ceremony – believe that Halloween has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. There's no indication that this festival originally had anything to do with supernatural creatures, or even that it held pre-Christian religious significance. It was celebrated as a harvest festival, and marked the end of the year on the Celtic calendar.
It's unclear when Samhain became a time for ghosts and evil spirits to roam the earth, but historical records begin to discuss this around the 10th century AD. Samhain found its way onto the Catholic calendar as All Hallow's Eve, or the night before All Saint's Day, in the 8th century AD. Irish Catholics, however, celebrated All Saint's Day on 20 April through much of the Middle Ages, while Samhain remained a folk festival.
3) Trick-or-treating, and dressing up in costumes, can also be traced back to Britain in, you guessed it, the Middle Ages. Poor people began doing something they called “souling” on All Hallow's Eve. They'd go around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and begging for food. In return, they'd promise to offer prayers for the dead on All Saint's Day.
Halloween costumes appeared in Scotland in about the 16th century, when young men began wrapping themselves in white sheets and wearing masks, veils or soot on their faces to impersonate ghosts. The idea, of course, was to either fool or ward off the real ghosts.
Children didn't begin putting on costumes and begging for treats until the 19th century. The first recorded instance of trick-or-treating as we know it comes from, again, Scotland, in 1895. The custom was first recorded in North America in Kingston, Ontario, in 1911, where it was so unusual it made the local newspaper. The term “trick-or-treat” was first coined in Alberta, Canada in 1927.
Trick-or-treating didn't take off in the United States until the 1930s, but by the 1940s, it had become a an age-old tradition.
4) The tradition of carving a jack o'lantern originates from Ireland. Just one more thing the Irish have to be proud of, along with sexy accents and singlehandedly populating the East Coast.
According to Irish legend, a man named Stingy Jack once asked the Devil himself out for a drink. Stingy Jack, of course, didn't want to pay for the drinks. They called him “Stingy Jack” for a reason.
Somehow, Stingy Jack managed to convince the Devil to turn himself into a coin, with which Jack promised to pay the barman. Instead, Jack put the coin in his pocket, where he also kept a silver cross. The presence of the cross kept the Devil trapped in coin form. When Jack finally released the Devil, he made the Devil swear to leave him alone for a year. Jack knew his Devil, so he also made the Devil give up any claim to Jack's soul.
A year later, Jack talked the Devil into fetching some fruit from the upper branches of a tree. While the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into its trunk, trapping the Devil once more.
Jack released the Devil a second time after making him promise to leave Jack alone for ten more years.
Alas, before Jack had the chance to trick the Devil a third time, he died. God wouldn't let him into Heaven, because he was a sinful bastard who was known to consort with the Devil. The Devil wouldn't let him into Hell, because, well, he was understandably upset. All Jack got from the Devil was a hot coal from the infernal flames, and probably a huge “F*ck you.”
Poor Jack was forced to roam the night for eternity. He put the hot coal into a hollowed-out turnip to light his way. People started carving hideous faces into root vegetables and putting them in their windows, to scare away the spirit of Stingy Jack and any other nasty spirits that might be roaming the night on All Hallow's Eve.
5) You may have noticed I said “turnip,” not pumpkin. The first jack o'lanterns were made from beets, turnips, rutabagas and large potatoes. Pumpkins are native to North America, so they didn't become standard jack o'lantern material until Scotch and Irish immigrants arrived, found them and said, “Hey, guys, look at this, it even has a handle!”