Seasonal treats – Why certain foods are associated with Halloween

At this time of year, we crave certain comfort food: pumpkin pies, toffee apples, chocolate (in any form!) … But have you ever wondered why certain foods have become associated with Halloween? Well, wonder no more…

Pumpkins lanterns

Our dino pumpkin for this Halloween

First up (of course!) is the pumpkin, and you might be surprised to hear that the carving of pumpkin lanterns (or ‘Jack-o’-lanterns’) for Halloween, likely originated in Ireland from local folklore, and not from America. Originally, turnips or large potatoes were used to carve the lanterns, until Irish migrants took their stories over to America, and, once there, discovered the superior carving qualities of pumpkins!

The story behind these lanterns concerns a miserly and unpleasant character known as ‘Stingy Jack’. As with most folklore, there are a number of versions of his tale, but all recount how Stingy Jack once tricked the Devil into turning himself into a sixpence in exchange for his soul. Instead of using the sixpence to buy himself one last drink (as promised) before his damnation, Jack quickly pocketed it, and kept it securely next to a silver crucifix, preventing the Devil from escaping. In exchange for his freedom, Jack forced the Devil to grant him ten more years of life before returning to claim his soul, to which the Devil reluctantly agreed.

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack’o-Lantern

Ten years passed and the Devil once again returned to claim Jack’s soul, but true to form, Jack managed to trick the trickster again, this time trapping him in an apple tree by carving a crucifix into its trunk (you’d think the Devil would’ve seen it coming). Feeling a bit cocky after his latest triumph, in addition to another ten years of life, Jack made the Devil promise that when the time came for him to die, the Devil would relinquish his claim to his soul. The Devil agreed (and was probably fairly happy to be rid of Jack).

Unfortunately for Jack, that’s where his fun ended. When the time came for Jack to die, and he stood at the pearly gates to heaven, he was dismayed to find that God didn’t want anything to do with him either. So now, having been denied entry to both Heaven and Hell, legend has it that Stingy Jack’s spirit is forced to wander the earth for eternity. His only possession as he traipses on his endless path, is a lump of coal burning with hellfire and placed inside a hollowed-out turnip, which Jack uses as a lantern to light his way. Spooky!

The goddess Pomona by Nicolas Fouché

Auspicious apples

Apples are also a food we often associate with Halloween, and like the pumpkin, this could partially stem from the seasonality of the fruit, which peaks at this time of year. But the significance of apples is also deep-rooted in mythology and folklore. Celtic and Pagan tradition placed apples as powerful sources for divination and prophecy, and when the Roman’s came to Britain, they brought their own prophetic associations with the humble fruit.

On the 1st of November, the Romans celebrated a harvest festival dedicated to the goddess Pomona, goddess of plenty and abundance. Part of the festivities involved unmarried, young people attempting to bite into an apple floating in water or suspended from a string. The first to bite into the apple would be deemed next in line to marry. This tradition became embedded in Celtic festivals, like Samhain, and has naturally been adopted into Halloween celebrations. One of the colloquial names given to the 31st October, in Britain at least, was ‘Snap-Apple Night’, deriving from this practice, and later developing into the modern Halloween game of ‘Bobbing-for-Apples’.

Sweet treats for the dead

If you’ve read our blog post on Samhain, you’ll know that this Pagan festival was celebrated over the 31st October – 1st November to mark the last harvest of the year, the start of winter, and as a time to remember the dead. As part of the festivities, offerings of food were left for the spirits, either thrown on the scared bonfire or left on the doorstep of the home.

‘Souling’ on Halloween, from St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, 1892

The act of leaving food as an offering to the dead is a tradition that can be found throughout the world; the Ancient Egyptians left food inside tombs to help nourish the soul on its journey to the afterlife, and feasts honouring the dead at the grave side is a common practice in many cultures, perhaps the most well-known taking place in Mexico on the Día de los Muertos, or the ‘Day of the Dead.’

In Christianity, the tradition of leaving something sweet to honour the dead became more prominent. On the 1st of November, Christians celebrate the feasts of ‘All Saints and All Souls’, renaming the 31st October ‘All-Hallows Eve’ or ‘Hallow’een’. As part of this new tradition, ‘soul cakes’ (small cakes or pastries usually baked with spices, currants and saffron) were customarily baked and distributed as alms to the poor. Prayers to the dead were said as the cakes were consumed, and the ritual became known as ‘souling’ – (Terry Pratchett fans may be disheartened to hear, however, that there’s sadly no reference to a ‘Soul-Cake Duck’).

Perhaps these traditions of leaving food as an offering to the dead, combined with the ‘sweet’ element of the soul-cakes, gave some origin to Halloween’s modern association with distributing sweets and chocolate to the rowdy ‘spirits’ (‘trick-or-treaters’) that now knock on our own doors at this time of year…

So, whether you’re marking Samhain with apple-bobbing, All Hallows Eve with a soul-cake, or Halloween with a carved ‘Jack’o-Lantern’, you’ll be able to take a minute to reflect on how these traditions have come about.