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A Short History of Halloween Traditions

Children trick or treating

Why are black cats associated with Halloween?

The history behind black cat superstition actually dates back to North American colonizers. The Pilgrims had a deep-seated distrust for and dislike of anything they considered witchcraft. Black cats were associated with bad luck and curses in Medieval France and Spain, and this superstition carried over to associate them with witchcraft.

Although commonly depicted in our Halloween decor because of this association, black cats have also been seen as a symbol of good luck historically. On the British Isles and Japan, it’s considered good luck to have a black cat in your home--in Ancient Egypt, black cats were worshipped as descendants of Bastet, a goddess who took on the form of a black cat.

Why do we carve pumpkins on Halloween?

This tradition is actually rooted in an Irish folktale. According to the legend, a man named Stingy Jack tricked and trapped the devil using a silver cross. Jack offered the Devil his freedom only after he promised to leave Jack alone for a whole year--if Jack were to die, the Devil wouldn’t steal his soul. After a year, the Devil returned. This time, Jack tricked the Devil and trapped him a second time--only releasing him if he promised to leave Jack alone for ten more years.

As all mortals do, Jack eventually died and God didn’t want to place him in heaven due to his trickster nature. The Devil was upset about being tricked so many times and held his promise to not claim Jack’s soul--thus, Jack was banned from hell and was sentenced to roam the Earth. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal to help light his way, which Jack decided to place in a carved-out turnip.

In Ireland and Scotland, people made their own ‘Jack of the Lanterns’ by carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes in order to ward off any wandering evil spirits. When these populations started to immigrate to the United States, they discovered that the pumpkin, a native fruit of North America, made the perfect jack o’ lanterns we know today.

How did trick-or-treating become a Halloween tradition?

There’s a long history of celebrations and Old World traditions that could have culminated in what we now know as Halloween. But in the United States, trick or treating didn’t really take off until the mid-1950s! No one is entirely sure where to place the origin of the phrase ‘trick-or-treat’, but history tells us that bored young people in the 1920s and through the Great Depression used Halloween as an excuse to go out at night and commit pranks. These pranks eventually gave way to more serious acts of vandalism and even violence at times, and the theory that persists is that communities created trick-or-treating as a means of stopping these acts and giving young people a valid reason to go door to door in search of treats instead of mischief.