Jack-o-lanterns are an Irish tradition. In Ireland, oversized rutabagas, turnips and potatoes were hollowed-out, carved into faces and illuminated with candles to be used as lanterns during Halloween festivities. Sound familiar? No doubt, our modern jack-o-lantern was modeled after the Irish vegetables which strike us today as being strange. These carved vegetables have an interesting history. According to Irish legend, it began with a fellow named Jack, who was too stingy to be allowed into Heaven and too mischievous to join the Devil in Hades. As consolation, the Devil threw Jack a lighted coal, which he placed inside a turnip he was eating. It is said that Jack continues to use the coal to light his path as he searches for a final resting place.
Let your imagination migrate from Ireland to Mexico where, interestingly enough, the pumpkin originated about 9,000 years ago. Incidentally, the pumpkin is one of America’s oldest known vegetables. For your information, pumpkins generally weigh from 15 to 30 pounds; however the largest one ever measured weighed in at 836 pounds. In 2010, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation, 46 percent of those surveyed will carve a pumpkin, 72 percent will hand out candy, 21 percent will visit a haunted house and 11 percent will dress up their pets. Our neighbors to the south also add an interesting component to the Halloween tradition. They celebrate “Day of the Dead” (Dias de los Muertos) which takes place on Nov. 1, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov.2). In Mexico it is a national holiday, banks are close, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts.
Here is a fascinating fact with regards to the Halloween observance in New York City. Did you know that the largest Halloween parade in the United States in held in Greenwich Village? It includes 50,000 participants and draws over 2 million spectators.
The tradition of trick-or-treating has its origins in the Middle Ages and All Souls’ Day, when poor people in Britain would beg for soul cakes, a sweet-bread, and pray for dead relatives in return. When trick-or-treating first became popular in the United States in the 1800s, more children played naughty pranks than asked for candy. By the 1950s, though, the focus had switched to good old family and neighborhood fun, with sugar-hyped children dressed in costumes.
Who of us would have imagined that Halloween would become the second highest grossing commercial holiday after Christmas. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers spend an average of $66 per person — which would be a total of $5.8 billion — on Halloween costumes, cards and candy. Poor Thanksgiving Day has gotten lost in the shuffle.