Happy Halloween, everybody! It's my favorite day of the year. Sure it's nice to watch Fourth of July Fireworks, pig out on turkey for Thanksgiving and to burn a large pile of groundhogs in a bonfire for Groundhog's day (That IS how everyone else celebrates Groundhog's day, right?).
Halloween is a real mutt of a holiday, and I mean that in a good way. It has its roots in both Celtic Pagan, and European Christian traditions which were then secularized to become the parade of monster movies, candy and costumes we know and (mostly) love today. The name is a contraction of "All Hallows Even" and refers to the fact that it is the night before "All Hallows" or "All Saints" day in Catholic Tradition.
The Jack O Lantern is probably the most recognizable symbol of the season. Like a lot about Halloween, it's a mix of old an new tradition. It's unclear how far back the tradition goes (carving faces into vegetables, apparently, is an ancient custom and not limited to Haloween) but the earliest recorded instances of doing it specifically for the Feast of All Saints goes back to the 17th century in Ireland. No Pumpkins to be had in 1600's Ireland though, so they carved their Jack o Lanterns out of turnips. When Halloween came to the new world, people found gourds and especially pumpkins to be easier to work with and larger, so the now familiar Halloween tradition of carving a pumpkin was born. I think the turnips look creepier than pumpkins, but I would bet they are harder to work with as well.
Trick or Treating is another fine tradition of the festival. In its modern form, it only dates to about the 1920s. But winter and fall holidays across the world do have traditions of people dressing up and going door to door for treats, Christmas Caroling is an example. So it is hard to pin down the exact origins of the practice. A likely source is the 15th-century tradition of "Soul cakes" where, on the Feast of All Saints, people would go door to door singing (again, rather like Christmas Caroling) and their neighbors would share small cakes (soul cakes) with them. Which makes me think that next year, I am going to go for authenticity and make trick or treaters sing me a song, but they will get a Twinkie for their efforts. But I digress. "Guising" (the wearing of a costume) became a custom for harvest celebrations of various types around the 18th century, and that is the most likely origin of the Halloween Costume. The phrase "Trick or Treat" itself seems to be an American invention, created sometime in the 1920s and never spread outside of our shores until the 1940s.
Trick or Treating is a mostly American tradition these days. It never really took off as a Halloween thing in the rest of the world until the 1980s and even now is nowhere near as popular in Europe and the UK as in the US of A. I know more than a few British and Australian friends of mine on Facebook seem to resent it. Personally, though, I love the idea of being able to be generous to some kids and make them happy, while seeing some cute costumes. So anyone who shows up at my door gets a treat. Don't care what age, don't care whether there is a costume, don't care if you are delivering a package, show up to my door tonight, you get a candy bar. It's the spirit of the season, after all.