Halloween is one of the only major holidays celebrated in the United States that doesn’t involve gathering with friends and family around the dinner table to share a large elaborate meal. Even without the big meal, the holiday is still rich in food traditions, some with truly ancient roots. I am sure you know candy is a staple of Halloween, and more candy is consumed on Halloween than on Christmas or Valentine’s Day. We carve pumpkins, trick-or-treat, bob for apples, and more. So, where did all of these traditions begin?
The holiday we celebrate today is rooted in three different celebrations:
- the Roman festival of Pomona,
- the Celtic festival of Samhain,
- and All Soul’s (or Saint’s) day.
Pomona was the Roman goodness of the orchards and harvest. During this ancient celebration, the Romans would give offerings of nuts, apples, and other fruits – symbols of love and fertility to Pomona. After the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD, the Romans and Celts intermingled and, over the following centuries, slowly merged Pomona and Samhain into a single holiday.
The word Samhain literally means “summer’s end” and was an ancient Celtic celebration of summer, the harvest, and the coming of the long and dark winter days. Villagers would make offerings of food and wine to their ancestors, whom they believed were free to roam among the living that night and would foretell of trouble ahead. Fortunetelling was very common on the night of Samhain; people would hand out small cakes filled with a variety of tokens (coins, rings, rags, thimbles, or straw). The tokens were said to foretell your future spouse or the quality of your next harvest, depending on what token was inside your cake. To ward off unwanted or harmful spirits, the people would wear “ghostly” disguises to try to be mistaken for a spirit themselves. Traveling troupes of actors would go from house to house performing in exchange for food and drink.
All Soul’s (or Saint’s) Day
In 835AD, the Roman Catholic Church declared November 1st a religious holiday to honor their religion’s saints. Instead of offerings of food and wine, villagers baked small spiced biscuit-like “soul cakes” for the poor. Young men would travel door-to-door and sing in exchange for money, ale, or food. They would wear costumes not to ward off unwelcome spirits but to honor their saints.
Ancient Traditions Head to America
In the 19th century, Irish immigrants brought these ancient traditions and celebrations to America. They carved turnips and potatoes into lanterns to welcome their deceased loved ones, but soon, those veggies were replaced by the larger native American pumpkins. Fortunetelling continued as a holiday tradition in America, coupled with a nod to Pomona. How? Young unmarried people would bob for apples, and supposedly the first person to bite into an apple would be the next to marry! Young ladies would peel apples hoping to see their future husband’s name spelled out in the peels. In a nod to both All Soul’s/Saint’s Day and Samhain, the practice of actors performing or young men singing door-to-door for food or money was replaced by children dressing in flamboyant or scary costumes and asking for treats… though the children were certainly not trying to ward off unwelcome spirits with their attire.
American Halloween Today
In America, these traditions and their practice on October 31st became known as All Hallow’s Eve (as it was on the eve of the hallowed All Saint’s/Soul’s Day) and later simply Halloween. Trick-or-treating didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1950s after World War II. The practice was promoted to bring American neighborhoods back together and to help give people some joy after such a harrowing ordeal. Americans slowly added their own flavor to the new holiday with witch imagery, handing out devil’s food cupcakes (instead of “soul cakes”), orange and black colorations on everything (symbolizing pumpkins and death, respectively), and more.
Candy corn, one of the most iconic of the holiday’s candies, was originally invented in the 1880s in Philadelphia and has not changed at all since. It is actually the second most popular candy at Halloween-time, trailing only behind chocolate. It is estimated that Americans spend over $3 billion dollars a year on Halloween candy alone!
What about Dia de los Muertos?
Perhaps one of the most well-known similar holidays to Halloween is Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, which is a two-day celebration of those who have passed on. Families create elaborate Ofrendas, alters with offerings, for their deceased family members. Ofrendas are decorated with marigold flowers, photos of the departed, and their favorite foods and drinks. The offerings are believed to encourage the spirit of their deceased loved one to visit them and join the celebration. Though this holiday resembles Halloween, it is a very different and deeply meaningful holiday. A celebration of family, life, and death.
Today, all over the world foods such as apples, nuts, pumpkins, potatoes, currants, caramel, and (of course) candy are still popular treats and snacks to enjoy through Autumn/Fall, Halloween, and well into the winter holidays.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!” —
Merely this, and nothing more.
– Edgar Allan Poe
Happy Halloween everyone!
Did you know that today’s Halloween celebrations were so deeply rooted in the past? What are your favorite things to do and to eat for Halloween?
Let us know in the comments!