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From pumpkin carving to trick or treat, where do Halloween traditions come from?
Dressing up as spiderman, munching on delicious Halloween-themed chocolate and scaring yourself silly with horror movies – that’s Halloween, right? In fact, although we have kept many traditional Halloween traditions, modern celebrations have altered drastically since the event began over 200 years ago.
The history of Halloween
Halloween started with the Celts, who lived in the region where modern-day Britain, Ireland and Northern France stands over 2000 years ago. They celebrated their new year (the end of summer and the beginning of winter) on November 1, as the dark, cold winters of northern Europe were often associated with death during this time since illnesses were more likely to have fatal consequences.
The night before, on October 31, they believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to the earth to haunt the living. They called it Samhain, and it was thought that their priests – the Druids – could use the deceased souls to make predictions about the future. To mark the occasion, the Celts dressed up in animal-skin costumes and built large sacred bonfires to keep them safe.
From this point, the Celtic celebration of Samhain was adapted, changed and embellished by the invasive and ruling forces that followed. The Romans blended Samhain with their own Feralia celebration in late October, where they traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.
Centuries later in the 9th century, the Christian Church attempted to supplant their own Christian take on the Samhain, and created All Souls’ Day as a Church-sanctioned holiday on November 2. The day before that was All Saints’ Day, or All-Hallows (from the middle English Alholowmesse) and so the night before All-hallows was appropriately named All-Hallows Eve. In full circle, October 31 – the same day as the ancient Celtic Samhain celebration – became known as Halloween.
The origins of Halloween traditions
From dressing up in costumes, trick or treating and carving pumpkins, there are a variety of different ways we celebrate Halloween – but why do we do them?
Bobbing for apples
Filling a bucket with water, filling it with apples and asking people to fish one out with their hands tied behind their backs has to have a good story behind it. In fact, there are several.
When the Romans invaded Celtic territory in 43 A.D., they brought apples with them, as well as their own Gods. Pomona – the goddess of fruit and trees – was one of the Gods they worshipped, who bore the symbol of an apple. The Romans blended their celebration of Pomona with the Celtic Samhain ritual, which some believe explain the tradition of bobbing for apples.
As time went on, however, the apple-bobbing tradition also became a way to find your future lover. Each apple was assigned to a man, and the women dunked their heads to find their future husband, biting down on his assigned apple and hoisting it out of the water in their teeth.
Now, it’s just a fun – and messy – way to get rid of the glut of apples that arrives in the UK every autumn.
Costumes and trick or treating
Another complex history behind this one – the Celts believed that ghosts, fairies and spirits came visiting on October 31, and had to be appeased with food and drink. If people dressed up as the spirits and received offerings on their behalf, they believed that this would protect them from the souls of the dead.
Centuries later in the 15th century, Christians used to share soul-cakes (a cakey biscuit with a cross design) from October 31 to November 2. People would visit houses and take soul-cakes in return for praying for the souls of the household’s dead relatives.
The wearing of costumes, or “guising” developed around the same time. Groups would dress up and travel house to house reciting poetry, acting out small plays or singing songs in return for money, apples or soul-cakes. Some groups threatened mischief if they were not paid.
The first written use of “trick or treat” was in 1927 in America (many of the Halloween traditions had moved over there with British immigrants), where it described a situation in which “youthful tormentors were at [the] back door and front, demanding edible plunder by the world “trick or treat”.
Carving pumpkins into Jack O’Lanterns is a tradition that stems from an old Irish myth. According to the story, a character called Stingy Jack managed to trick the devil multiple times, making him promise not to claim his soul when he died.
Therefore, when Stingy Jack did lose his life, the Devil couldn’t take his soul to hell, but God wasn’t going to allow someone like Jack into heaven either. The Devil gave Jack a burning coal from hell and he began to roam the dark nights with just the coal to light his way. He put the burning ember into a hollowed-out turnip, and the Irish people began to refer to this phantom-like figure as Jack of the Lantern, which was shortened to Jack O’Lantern.
From Ireland, the tale spread to Scotland and England, and people carved out turnips, beets and potatoes and put them in windows or near doors to scare away Jack and other evil spirits.
Of course,turnips and beetroots don’t adorn the steps of our homes on Halloween nowadays. It was only when European immigrants took the tradition to America that they started carving pumpkins instead, as they were native to the region and more readily available. We’ve taken to the pumpkin tradition here as well, as they’re much easier to hollow out and carve!
Halloween pumpkin carving ideas
A pumpkin may be easier to carve than a turnip, but it’s still not that easy! We’ve got some tips to help make pumpkin carving that little bit easier, as well as some great design ideas that will make sure yours stands out from the crowd.
First (and controversially), try slicing the bottom off, rather than the top. This way the pumpkin is less likely to cave in later on. If you’d rather just cut off the top, make sure you do it at a 45° angle, otherwise the lid will just fall in!
Once you’ve scooped out all the seeds (try removing the pulp and roasting the seeds with a little salt for a tasty snack), sketch out your design on paper first, then draw the design on the pumpkin with a marker. Use a pointed, serrated knife to cut your design.
To stop your pumpkin looking a little worse for wear after a couple of days on the porch, rub petroleum jelly on the fresh cuts; this will stop the moisture from escaping and keep it fresh-looking for longer. If you forget, you can soak the pumpkin in water for 8 hours instead to hydrate it.
Our favourite tip is to sprinkle a little cinnamon on the inside of your Jack O’Lantern. This way, when the candle heats up the inside, it will release a delicious autumnal spiced pumpkin smell.
Don’t feel like you have to carve a scary face in your pumpkin – let your creative juices flow! Why not choose your favourite emoji, or carve a message in yours instead? If you’re a complete beginner but still want something that looks good, carve simple polka dots all over for a minimalist but stylish look.
If you’ve been curating your pumpkin face for months, why not give them a stylish new hairdo with some trailing plants? The possibilities are endless!
Halloween party food ideas
Halloween party food needs to be decadent, sweet and – in our opinion – chocolatey! Party foods don’t have to be complicated, especially if you’ve got a hoard of little ones over for a party. Get a pack of edible eyes and use melted chocolate (our chocolate drops are perfect for the job) to stick them on anything, from cookies to lollipops, to give them an appropriately ghoulish look.
Another simple, but effective, recipe is to whip up some egg whites and sugar into a meringue mix, and pipe it into bone-shapes before baking. The kids will like nothing more than crunching down on some bones at Halloween – and why not make some hot chocolate for them to dip it into? Our Velvetiser can whisk a velvety-smooth hot chocolate in just 2.5 minutes, or you can try the dips in our party boxes, where there’s a chocolate dip for every taste.
For a more savoury twist, mix cheese with store-bought puff pastry and slice them into sticks. Simple add a flaked almond fingernail – painted with the food colouring of your choice – and bake for a crispy, twisty witch’s finger.
Halloween craft ideas
If your kids (or you) are super excited about Halloween weeks before the big day, use that energy to make some Halloween craft decorations. Decking out your house with spooky additions is a great way to spend some quality time with your loved ones and get into the Halloween spirit.
Use this bat stencil, some black card (or white paper) and lots of markers and attach the bats upside down on some string. The sleeping bats will give a spooky silhouette to your windows for anyone walking by.
If your autumnal colds have meant you’ve got empty boxes of tissues lying around the house, turn these into terrifying monsters. Paint them the colour of your choice and put them on their side – the hole can be the mouth and filled with paper cut-out teeth. Stick on a couple of googly eyes and maybe a horn or two and you’re ready to go.
Turn white paper plates into oversized eyes by drawing a pupil and iris on them. Easy enough for young kids to master, hang them up around your front door to keep evil spirits away.
Easy Halloween costume ideas
Halloween parties almost always involve some sort of fancy dress. Although traditionally people would dress up as scary ghosts, monsters and vampires, it seems that any kind of fancy dress is acceptable. This is good if you have an old fancy dress costume in the cupboard from a party, but we think it’s nice to be a little scary for that trick or treat outing!
Remember that broken black umbrella you shoved to the back of the cupboard? Dig it out and turn it into bat wings! All you need is to pin it to a black outfit and attach some ears to a headband to complete the look.
If you’ve got hair that’s long enough to put into two braids, Wednesday Adams is another easy-but-effective costume. Find a black dress and wear a white shirt underneath; add some pale face powder and a disapproving expression and you’re done!
A skeleton costume can be done two ways. Either find a black outfit and use fabric paint to paint on the bones, or cut slits in a white t-shirt and put it over a black top for a more 3D look. Either way, don’t skimp on the face paint – those eye sockets won’t shade themselves.
Whatever your Halloween party plans, we hope you have a spookily good time! If you don’t have time to rustle up some home-made Halloween treats, then why not take a look at our scarily good Halloween chocolates? We’ve got skulls, bats, eyeballs and pumpkins that are devilishly creepy and totally natural. Grab yourself a bag before they’re all gone!