Trick or treat? Here in Italy we’ve started to hear this question just in the last few years. Now here to All Saints’ Day is achieving different shades and meanings, thanks to Halloween “importation” from Anglo-Saxon countries.

But, do you know history of Halloween feast? Let’s plunge and discover origin, legends and traditions bound to the spookiest feast of the year.

Origins of Halloween

They say Halloween feast was originally connected to sowing and harvest rites, to changes of seasons and to the ancestral fears bound to agriculture.
Even though Halloween is usually considered to be an American feast, its ancient origin seems actually to be Celtic. It is thought to be bound to the Celtic festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end”. Samhain can be considered as a sort of first edition of Halloween feast, as during the festival there were some rituals to celebrate the beginning of winter, the darkest season of the year, associated to night and darkness, and thus to Halloween.

Halloween and Christianity

All Saints’ Day was initiated during the early Middle Ages, when Christianity became the official religion in most of the Roman Empire and spread in Ireland and Great Britain. It was soon superimposed to Sahmain, probably unintentionally. All Souls’ Day on November 2nd was then added, precisely to emphatize that Saints have power to intercede for souls. Quite soon, in many countries around the world, a third feast was added: All Saints’ Eve, also called All Hallows’ Eve, then become Halloween.

Halloween Symbols: Between Truth and Legend

The ruling symbol of Halloween is a jack-o-lantern, that basically is a carved pumpkin. But not everybody knows that it should actually be… a turnip! In fact, it seems to have come from Irish and Scottish custom of carving turnips and mangelwurzels to make lanterns or represent spirits in Purgatory. Then, people emigrated in North America started to replace turnips with pumpkins, available in greater quantity, and also easier to carve because of their bigger size.

Carved pumpkin is probably named Jack o’ lantern, Jack of the Lantern, after the character of an old Irish folk tale. Jack was a lazy blacksmith who sold his soul to the devil and tricked Satan into climbing a tree, by placing crosses around the trunk, so that Satan couldn’t get down. Jack primised Satan to let him go, provided that he would never take his soul. So, when the blacksmith died after a sinful life, he found out he couldn’t be admitted to Heaven (because of his sins) nor to Hell (because of the pact). When he asked Satan how could he see where to go, Satan tossed him one of Hell unquenchable embers. So Jack carved out a turnip, his favorite food, to store the ember and have light. Since then, he is wandering the Earth for a resting place. Thence the custom to place a lantern out of the door, so that he can see there’s no place for him inside.

The Tradition of Halloween Costumes

We all know that one of the best Halloween traditions is wearing scary costumes… but where did this custom come from?

They say during the night of October 31st spirits of the dead came back to the Earth, searching for a body to possess. So people used to wander in the streets in disguise, to confuse and chase away the spirits.

Halloween Traditions: Trick or Treat?

Halloween is often celebrated with costume parties or horror-themed soirées, with scary tells and movies. But an ancient tradition still survives: trick-or-tricking. It is custom that children, in groups and wearing costumes, go from house to house in order to ask for treats, with the traditional question: “Trick or treat?”. So, the homeowners have to give out candies and chocolates, otherwise kids are authorized to perform mischief on them or their property.

Halloween Around the World

Every country around the world has its own way to celebrate Halloween. So, let’s see the leading traditions, some of which are unfortunately lost by now.

• Halloween in Austria: according to Austrian tradition, on Halloween evening every family, before going to bed, leave bread and water on the table, and the light on, to welcome the souls returning to the Earth during the night.

• Halloween in Germany: all the knives must be put away, so that no visiting spirit is hurt.

• Halloween in England: here, beside vegetable carving to make lanterns, it is custom to throw objects into a bonfire, in order to scary the spirits.

• Halloween in China: in every house, food and water are placed in front of the pictures of dead relatives. In Buddhist temples, paper boats are made with burnt paper, both to remember the dead and to free any spirit wandering the Earth.

• Halloween in Mexico and Latin America: this is the right occasion to clean the graves of one’s dear ones, to fix and paint them, and to cut the grass around. Then they use to decorate the graves with flowers and festoons. On November 2nd, the relatives of the dead gather around the grave for a pic-nic. In some countries they also use to have a parade with an alive person inside a casket, and throw flowers, fuit and candies around.