Lonely Jack-O-Lanterns: Halloween Then and Now

Halloween is a festival of many centuries past, coming back to Europe’s parts that were long hidden from the Roman civilization. In its thousands of years and Celtic/Irish roots, never has the Jack-O-Lantern (or originally turnip!) glow alone this year. This Halloween, bats blot the October night and real cobwebs on haunted attractions. Looking at Halloweens of the age’s past, we can all hope to once again celebrate a sinister yet hallowed night with candy, costumes, and experiencing the haunted galore. Where did Spooktober come from? How did it become and reach where it is today?


While Halloween is popularly celebrated in the West and the Christian world is a night of pranks and partying, Halloween is a night with deeply religious origins, a night to remember those no longer with us, and the Christian saints, who were known as “hallows.” “Halloween” itself is a theft of the Scottish Christian name for All Hallows Eve. But the very customs of October’s night to remember clothed in the cobwebs and skeletons of history, with conflicting origins. Many historians believe that for Christianity to gain a foothold in the Pagan world, it adopted many pre-existing traditions, with some claiming that Christmas itself is chronologically misplaced. Modern Halloween revellers’ traditions of partying, apple bobbing, and trick-or-treating (then known as mumming) come from Old Ireland, Halloween’s birthplace. Halloween’s ancient iteration was the Pagan holiday known as Samhain, which marked the end of the warm summer days. As the nights grew longer and days grew colder, ancient spirits known as Aos Si walked the earth. To survive the winter, one would need to appease the Aos Si, with candles lit in remembrance at night and offerings of food lay in many a home’s hearts. Bonfires to ward away the Aos Si, and later the Christian Devil were lit. Trick-or-treating found its origins here with mumming. Mumming was a ritual of costume. Mummers (also known as soulers) believed they could be one among the Aoi Si by disguising themselves from harm, in their garish and mystic garb, often smeared with ritual ash, singing Pagan songs for a little bit of the Halloween spread. While today’s kids may not take to ancient carolling, they most certainly have the ancient tradition of “tricking” their hosts if not “treated”! With the advent of Christianity, All Hallows Eve in Celtic country grew less sombre and more festive, akin to many other traditional “saint’s days” celebrated by the Church.


How did Halloween grow to be the pan-Western and semi-secular evening it is today? Christian influence in Celtic Europe altered it into the Halloween we’re familiar with. Pope Gregory IV appropriated November 1st, the day of Samhain, the “original” Halloween. Mumming took on Christian connotations, merging with the popular practice of dressing in black and roaming the streets with remembrance songs for the past. Trick-or-treat gained a sweet tooth here, with soul cakes being baked for those who would go door to door for alms, receiving these alms in exchange for prayer. The Samhain bonfires now guarded against a different entity – rather than the Aos Si, they kept away the Devil and were known as spirit flames. Halloween itself is a massively popular and primarily secular holiday that did not happen until its introduction to the New World in the 18th-century waves of Irish and Scottish immigration, bringing the holiday that was once Samhain with them. It is here where the ghoulish and orange sight of jack-o-lanterns made their now familiar appearance. Legend holds that folklore hero Jack once tricked and trapped the Devil, only releasing him on the condition Jack would not be taken into hell. However, sinful as Jack was in life, the pearly gates of heaven did not open for him either. The Devil stayed true and relinquished his claim on Jack’s soul, offering nothing but a lump of burning coal straight from hellfire. Jack took this and kept it in a hollow turnip to warm him on the cold night, where he wandered, looking for eternal rest. The turnip that was popularly used shifted to hollowed-out pumpkins, larger, easier to carve and hollow, and far more common in America. At the dawn of the 20th century, Halloween was far from Scottish and Irish phenomena – with the first large scale trick-or-treating in 1911 and the first haunted houses being set up in the Halloweens of the 1930s, America became the holy grail of Halloween, with it being celebrated irrespective of identity and social strata. With its Pagan and Christianity past fading and flourishing in Americocentrism, Halloween found popular celebration worldwide. Everyone loves to celebrate the macabre! Alas, neither mummer nor trick-or-treater walks the streets this year.


It’s been a tragic year. Neither did we relish the monsoon and the yearly getting drenched in the school uniform, nor did our ritualistic road trip plans reach anywhere but home. When in 2019 most of us sat down drafting ideas for the rather fascinating 2020, we hardly knew that something of a teeny tiny virus would hit the entire world, confining us to the four walls of our homes and violating us of our freedom to even step out into the morning sunlight, if you did you had to take precautions and if you didn’t you ended up in clean white beds in the hospital and definitely be abandoned of all your hopes to get out alive. Whoever thought that a little virus could destroy us, bring in restrictions, bind us in homes for too long, made us want to get out? It took a pandemic to make us realize that a-next-year-of-little-more-fun might never happen. It took us to 2020 to start enjoying every detail and every moment of relationships, friendships, festivals, and get-togethers.


Halloween this year was supposed to be lit, a happy yet spooky festival, kids running door to door asking for trick or treats and people playing the fool, scaring the hell out of neighbours because this day is the only day cheekiness is glorified and being off your limits is called enjoying to the fullest. October 31, 2020, was supposed to be one day when we ran out into the streets to shout, scream, scare and trick people; instead, this year, we are doomed to stay home, stay safe and stay healthy, and put out all ideas of doing something crazy, something exciting and something that would fire up the spirit of Halloween. We have finally come to live in a year where Halloween or any other festival to the point is not about letting out yourself and giving your spirit some fun and cheer. We have now come to bind ourselves and accept that online celebrations are not that bad after all! A year ago, we would definitely have not submitted to an idea of virtual celebrations, but today life has taken us down a different road. We have come live with sanitizers, social distancing, and spookiness online and somehow accepting it for now that a virtual Halloween, probably dressed a bit scary for yourself at home, isn’t that bad after all. Somehow this Halloween, the idea of a virus attacking us is scarier than the ghosts clinging from treetops, hanging down from haunted houses, and little devil’s creeping up from bushes here and there. If we did celebrate Halloween this year, we would draw lines between us, a distance away from other ghosts, ask every house to sanitize their candies before they handed it out, and probably even have an ambulance and a police van patrolling us and checking around if social distancing is carried out perfectly well.


Well, whoever thought we would end up in such a year where going out is scarier than the ghosts of Halloween, where sanitizers are more important than candies, and life itself is more important than celebration. We definitely have lost the fun, the vigour of the spookiest festivals of the year, but could the spirit of Halloween be possibly blown out from our heart? Could it be possible that the cobwebs of Halloween, the ghosts that walkabout couldn’t possibly dwell in our hearts to lighten up Halloween in our hearts and minds? We might be far away from any possibility of celebration, but the spirit of Halloween, of cheer, of joy, lingers in the air in full swing. You only have to let into the spookiness.


Written by: Arul and Sonia

Graphics by: Anjali Dinesh

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