Halloween, one of America's most anticipated holidays, carries with it all-American images of candy, costumes and pranks. The holiday itself, however, stems from centuries-old folklore and traditions, along with some of its most iconic activities.
Halloween's roots spring from the seventh century, when Pope Boniface IV designated Nov. 1 All-Hallowmas (or All Saint's Day), a day to honor all saints and martyrs. It is believed the pope was attempting to replace the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, on which people gathered to sacrifice fruits, animals and vegetables, to honor the dead and aid them on their journey to the afterlife.
The night before All-Hallowmas, All-Hallows Eve, would become what is now Halloween. With the advent of this new holiday, people held parades and bonfires, dressing up as saints, angels or devils in celebration.
The "trick-or-treat" portion of Halloween finds its origins in England's All Souls' Day, a day after All Saints' Day. During a parade, families gave beggars pastries known as "soul cakes" in return for prayers for the family's dead relatives.
The Catholic Church encouraged the activity, rather than the traditional practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. Eventually, children began going door-to-door for treats, receiving ale, food and money for their troubles.
The age-old tradition of carving jack-o'-lanterns is traced to an Irish mythical character called "Stingy Jack," who had the misfortune to encounter the devil in a pub on Halloween night. Jack had too much to drink and was about to fall into the devil's hands, but managed to persuade the devil into trading his soul for one last drink.
Jack persuaded the devil to turn into a coin to buy their drinks. The devil agreed, and Jack kept the money in his pocket next to a cross, preventing the devil from changing back to his original form. Jack agreed to free the devil under the condition that he wouldn't try to claim Jack's soul for 10 years.
A decade later, Jack came across the devil while walking on a country road. The devil wanted to collect, but quick-thinking Jack agreed to go with Satan only after the devil got an apple from a nearby tree. Thinking he had nothing to lose, the devil jumped on Jack's shoulders to get the apple. Jack pulled out his knife and carved a cross in the trunk of the tree, leaving the Devil hanging in the air, unable to obtain Jack or his soul. Jack made him promise to never again ask for his soul; seeing no way out, the devil agreed.
Jack died soon after. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell, sending him into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth with it ever since; the Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and as time passed, "Jack O'Lantern."
Europeans began carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes, placing them in windows to frighten away Jack and other wandering evil spirits. Immigrants from these countries brought the Jack O'Lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to this country, made perfect Jack O'Lanterns, which became a lasting symbol of Halloween and an enduring tradition for schoolchildren and college students alike.