In Celtic mythology there are 2 seasons, the bright season and the dark season. The end of the Celtic year is the night of the 31st of October, and the celebrations start at sunset and last for 24 hours. In Ireland, the festivities would carry on for several days.
During this special night, the separation between the world of the living and the dead is at its weakest. Exceptionally the door between these two worlds was open, permitting the dead to visit the living for a few hours.
However, the origins of this festival are lost in the mists of time …
The first mention of Samhain in Irish literature dates from the late medieval period, a long time after paganism and magic rites were no longer common in Europe. If Samhain is surely based on a popular feast, its origins are not certain.
So does the tradition really have Celtic roots?
Whole sections of History would have been written in the 17th and 18th century to respond to contemporary political and societal situations. Traditions were created or remodeled by the historians of the English Crown in order to satisfy a lack of cultural identity. As the Irish people were neglected, attributing Celtic roots to a popular festivity served to reinforce a national feeling. This Irish festivity correspond to the “All Saints’Eve”, the evening of all Saint’s Day, and by successive contraction became “All Hallow’s Eve” and finally known today as “Halloween”.
In the 19th century, Romantic authors merged the Irish “All Hallow’s Eve” and Samhain (or Samain). The most effective mystification is attributed to Lady Jane Francesca Wilde (mother of Oscar Wilde), who wrote “Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland”, in which she depicts the night of 31st October to 1st November as being steeped in ancestral rites.
However, the most reliable sources we have come from Medieval Irish monks whose job was to record and christianize Gaelic mythology. According to those monks, Samain was one of the four important festivities in the Celtic world, a celebration of transition but today we cannot be entirely sure exactly what was being celebrated. Was it perhaps a time for weddings, or making laws or taking political decisions? We just don’t know for sure…
So why a pumpkin?
After 1750 in Ireland and Scotland, the famous legend of Jack-o’-Lantern appeared. He was a drunk and petty blacksmith. He never managed to enter paradise because of a debauched life, and Hell was denied to him after several misadventures with the Devil. Since the day of his death, on the 31st October, he has been condemned to wander the night with only a lantern carved from a turnip.
The legend became a tradition, and people started carving turnips to place candles inside. When the Irish and Scottish arrived in America, looking to escape a life of misery, they used the local pumpkins which were easier to carve than turnips. It was only in the 1930s that the tradition of candy and knocking at doors, also known as trick or treat, appeared.