Noah Webster identifies Halloween as “October 31: observed especially with dressing up in disguise, trick-or-treating, and displaying jack o'lanterns during the evening.”
Concise and correct, but it is so much more than just an evening. It is really a state of mind and an excuse for merrymaking, revelry, and masquerade by both children as well as adults.
Halloween, short for All Hallow’ Eve, has its origins dating back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year's festival. All Hallows really means “summer’s end" and the festival celebrated the end of the harvest season and the coming of winter.
Out of this tradition, the jack o'lantern is associated with the Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack, a clever drunk and con man who fooled the devil into banning him from hell, but because of his sinful life, could not enter heaven. After his death, he roamed the world carrying a small lantern made from a turnip with a red-hot ember from hell inside to light his way.
A lot of people think of Halloween as a truly American holiday. In some ways it really is a very American holiday, because over the decades it has grown to enormous proportions. However, some people don’t remember that its roots are Celtic-European. Americans began to dress in costumes and go from house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
In Halloween Traditions in Boston, Anthony Sammarco discusses the history of the Salem Witchcraft Trials which caused such tremendous anxiety and fear and the deaths of many innocent people in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692, to the decorating of Beacon Hill as a veritable neighborhood of whimsy, with macabre skulls, bones, and cobwebs, to pumpkins and lighted jack o'lanterns.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Anthony M. Sammarco is a noted historian and author of over seventy books on the history and development of Boston, and he lectures widely on the history of his native city. His books Lost Boston, The History of Howard Johnson's: How A Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became a Roadside Icon, Christmas Traditions in Boston, and The Baker Chocolate Company: A Sweet History have been bestsellers.