Halloween is observed annually on the night of 31 October. It is believed to have originated primarily as a Celtic celebration marking the division of the light and dark halves of the year, when the boundary between the living and the dead was believed to be at its thinnest. Halloween customs, such as wearing disguises to ward off ghosts and offering food to appease malevolent spirits, were brought to Canada in the mid-to-late 1800s by Irish and Scottish immigrants. North America’s first recorded instance of dressing in disguise on Halloween was in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1898, while the first recorded use of the term trick or treat was in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 1927. Halloween became increasingly popular with adults beginning in the 1990s and by 2014 was estimated to be a $1-billion industry in Canada, making it the second most commercially successful holiday behind Christmas.

Christian Origins of Halloween

There is considerable debate about the origins of Halloween. Many argue that the celebration originated partly in Christianity, specifically All Saints’ Day, the feast day that honours all the saints (or hallows) of the church. The word Halloween has Christian origins and is derived from All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows Day. Such a catch-all celebration became necessary as the calendar became packed with the commemoration of numerous saints and martyrs.

The feast was established in May 609 or 610 by Boniface IV when he consecrated the Roman Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and all martyrs. It was observed on 13 May until Pope Gregory III (731–41) dedicated a chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica to all the saints and changed the feast day to 1 November. In the following century, Pope Gregory IV (827–44) established 1 November as the day that the Feast of All Saints was observed in all Western churches (it is observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost in Eastern churches).

Celtic Origins of Halloween

The customs of Halloween likely derive more from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-in, with sow as in a female pig), which some argue was appropriated by early Christians to convert the Celtic people. It was observed annually in Britain and Ireland on 1 November, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. (Samhain means “summer’s end” and is the Gaelic word for November.) Over the centuries, it also came to be recognized as the Celtic New Year, though research suggests this was not originally the case.

Led in their religious practice by Druids (the Celtic clergy), the Celts believed that the beginning of this day — the evening of 31 October — marked the division between the light and dark halves of the year. It was believed to be a spiritually liminal time, when the boundary between the living and the dead was at its thinnest and all manner of ghosts, fairies and demons, including the souls of the dead, were able to visit the living. In some parts of Ireland, Halloween is called Pooky Night, in reference to the púca, an especially mischievous fairy (this is the origin of the word spooky).

In Celtic Halloween customs, people wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves and ward off harmful spirits. The bones of slaughtered animals were cast into communal fires to aid the dead on their journey. People extinguished their home fires and relit them from the bone fire (the origin of today’s bonfire) to celebrate the triumph of light over dark. Meals were prepared for the living and the dead. Ritual offerings were left out to appease malevolent spirits that would otherwise bring bad luck to the home or the community.

The practice of begging for offerings from a household, originally known as souling or mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is considered the precursor of the modern practice of trick-or-treating. Beginning around the 15th century, the poor would offer to sing prayers for the souls of a household’s dead in exchange for soul cakes — a form of alms for the dead. As Halloween celebrations grew more secular, this practice was adopted by children. Instead of saying prayers, they would sing songs, recite poems or perform other entertaining tricks in exchange for nuts, fruit or coins. The practice of dressing children in disguise (guising) for souling became common during the 19th century.

Other common Halloween customs included a family dinner followed by parlour games, such as roasting nuts and bobbing for apples to divine one’s future, and a reading of Robert Burns’s 1786 poem Hallowe’en, which describes many other games and customs. Halloween postcards and greeting cards were also very popular between about 1900 and 1940.

Origin of the Jack-o’-lantern

One of the Halloween customs brought to Canada by Scottish and Irish immigrants was the jack-o’-lantern. There is some debate about the origins of this practice; some believe that carved turnips were used as lanterns on Samhain, while others claim that this was an adaptation of the old Christian custom of commemorating souls in purgatory by lighting candles in turnips.

The term jack-o’-lantern is derived from the myth of Stingy Jack, which is believed to have originated in the 17th century. According to Irish folklore, Stingy Jack was a drunkard and a cheat who was refused entry into both heaven (because he was a miser) and hell (because he played tricks on the devil). Stingy Jack was condemned to roam the dimension between the living and the dead until Judgement Day with only an ember from hell to light his way. He kept the ember in a carved-out turnip as a lantern and thus was known as Jack of the lantern, or Jack-o'-Lantern.

In Ireland and Britain, the original jack-o’-lanterns were hollowed-out turnips, beets or potatoes, carved to show a demonic face and lit from the inside by a candle. These vegetables were placed in the window or on the doorstep to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. Irish and Scottish immigrants to Canada and the United States brought the custom with them and adapted it to the larger, naturally hollow, native North American pumpkin, which has since become equally popular in Britain.

Pumpkin-carving contests all over Canada on or around Halloween, particularly in Nova Scotia, where whole communities compete (e.g., an annual carving contest is held at Kejimkujik National Park).