Why do we celebrate Halloween in Canada?

In October, you will start to see spooky decorations on houses, in stores, and in some public spaces in preparation for Halloween night on October 31. On Halloween, children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door asking their neighbours for candy. Adults also get into the spirit by dressing up and going to parties. But how did this silly tradition start?

Celtic Tradition

Halloween did not originate in Canada, even though it’s celebrated here and in many other parts of the world. It’s believed to be a Celtic tradition that started in ancient Ireland with a pagan fire festival called the Samhain Festival. According to researchers, the Celts celebrated the new year between October 31 and November 1 because this marked the start of the colder, darker months. They believed the year was divided into two parts - light and dark.

Samhain (meaning “summer’s end” in Celtic) was associated with the end (death) of summer and the harvest season. It was also seen as a rebirth because of the changes brought on by the dark cold months of winter. The festival was a way to “look into the future” or make predictions of the year ahead. It was also a chance to fight off evil spirits by sacrificing food crops and animals in bonfire rituals. Worshipers in the festival believed the lines between the real world and the afterlife became blurred at this time of the year. They thought that fairies and spirits from the dead would play tricks on them. They dressed up in animal or beast costumes hoping to trick “monsters”  and to protect themselves from the harms of evil spirits.

Christian Tradition

Centuries later, Roman Catholics celebrated All Saints Day on November 1. Also known as “All Hallows’ Day,” Christians used the occasion to honour saints and those who had recently passed away. The night before, or Hallows’ Eve, was also celebrated which we now refer to as Halloween.

All Saints Day aimed to reject the idea of evil spirits and any association with pagan practices. 

Halloween in Canada

In the late 1800’s, Irish and Scottish settlers in North America were some of the first documented wearing costumes on Halloween. Over the years, the holiday became increasingly popular with children and adults. Today, children roam door-to-door dressed up in costumes saying “trick-or-treat” to get candy and adults enjoy dressing up in costumes for parties.

Choosing a Costume

It's important to choose a costume that is appropriate. Dressing up as other cultures, or to imitate other religions or belief systems, is offensive. For example, you may think it’s fine to paint your face brown to look like a different race, or to choose a costume that adopts an Indigenous headdress. But that is very insulting and considered cultural appropriation, and should be avoided.

Why do we say trick or treat?

Trick-or-treating progressed from a tradition called “souling” that started in medieval Europe. People would travel door-to-door offering prayers for the souls of dead relatives stuck in purgatory in exchange for soul cakes (shortbread cookies). During the early 1900s Irish and Scottish children celebrated Halloween by playing harmless tricks on their neighbours. They would stuff hot cabbage in home keyholes to stink up their houses, or jump from hiding spots to scare them with scary-looking carved turnips. The first recorded use of the term “trick or treat” was in Lethbridge, Alberta, according to historians. 

Pumpkin Carving

This tradition started by carving out turnips, potatoes, and beets with lit candles inside to make lanterns out of them. Celts would set them on home windows or hallways as protection from evil spirits on All Hallow’s Eve. The tradition evolved from Irish settlers who came to America by carving out pumpkins instead because they are easier to work with and more practical to light. 

Jack O’ Lantern

Jack O’ Lantern’s were created from the legend of Stingy Jack. According to the fable, Stingy Jack was a drunk who would play tricks on people. One night he ran into the devil himself and played a trick on him in exchange for a drink. When Stingy Jack finally passed away, he tried to enter the gates of heaven and was refused for spending his life deceiving people, and drinking. He then went to the devil to try to enter hell. But the devil rejected him, because Stingy Jack had played a trick on him. He asked the devil to at least provide him a light to find his way. The devil gave Jack an ember from the fires of hell and Jack made a lantern by placing it in a hollowed turnip and is believed to have been roaming the earth without a place to rest.

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Last updated: October 28, 2022 4006546