Halloween occurs on the night of 31 October, and in Canada is celebrated by children who dress in costumes and go door-to-door, asking for candy while uttering the mock threat "trick or treat!" In some communities, door-to-door canvassing is being replaced by Halloween parties, reflecting people's concerns for their children's safety.

The Origins of Halloween

There is considerable debate about the origins of Halloween. Many argue that the celebration originated partly in Christianity, specifically All Saints' Day, the feast day that honours all the saints of the church. Such a celebration became necessary as the calendar became packed with the commemoration of numerous saints and martyrs. The feast was established in May 609 or 610 by Boniface IV when he consecrated the Roman Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and all martyrs. It was observed on 13 May until Pope Gregory III (731-741) dedicated a chapel of St Peter's Basilica to all the saints and changed the feast day to 1 November. In the following century, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) established 1 November as the day that the Feast of All Saints would be observed in all Western churches (it is observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost in Eastern churches). The word Halloween itself has Christian origins: in medieval Britain, All Hallows' Eve, from which we derive our "Halloween," was the evening before All Saints' Day (or All Hallows).

Yet the customs of Halloween may derive more from an ancient, pre-Christian, Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-in or SAH-win), which some argue was adapted by early Christians to convert the Celtic people. It was observed annually in Britain and Ireland on 1 November, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter as well as the Celtic New Year. On this day, which marked the division between the light and dark halves of the year, the boundary between the living and the dead was believed to be at its thinnest, allowing the souls of the dead to visit the living. People wore costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits. The bones of slaughtered animals were cast into communal fires to aid the dead on their journey (this "bone fire" is the origin of today's "bonfire"). People extinguished their home fires and relit them from the bonfire to celebrate the triumph of light over dark. Meals were prepared for the living and the dead, and the food that was prepared for ancestors was ritually shared with the poor.

Led in their religious practice by Druids (the Celtic priestly caste), the Celts believed that on the evening of 31 October, all manner of ghosts, fairies, and demons were abroad who may or may not be harmful. Ritual offerings were left out to appease malevolent spirits who would otherwise bring bad luck to the home. It is these traditions that are echoed in children dressing as demons and mischievously demanding "trick or treat."

One of the Halloween customs brought by the Scottish and Irish immigrants to Canada was the jack-o'-lantern. There is some debate about the origins of this practice; some believe that carved turnips were used as lanterns on Samhain, while others claim that this was an adaptation of the old Christian custom of commemorating souls in purgatory by lighting candles in turnips. The term jack-o'-lantern itself may have been derived from the story of a man who, according to Irish folklore, was refused entry both into heaven--because he was a miser--and into hell--because he played tricks on the devil. Jack was condemned to walk the earth with a lantern until Judgement Day, becoming "Jack of the lantern" or Jack-o'-Lantern. In Ireland and Britain the original jack-o'-lantern was a hollowed-out turnip, beet or potato, carved to show a demonic face and lit from the inside by a candle. These vegetables were replaced in the United States and Canada by the pumpkin.

Halloween in Canada

Halloween traditions were brought to Canada by Irish and Scottish immigrants. It is celebrated in Canada on or around 31 October with costumes, parties, and door-to-door visits. Children dress up as ghosts, witches, skeletons, or characters from popular culture and visit homes in their neighborhood. The "treats" may include popcorn and candies. The jack-o'-lantern (carved pumpkin) is placed prominently on verandahs, along with spiderwebs and representations of the spirit world. Pumpkin-carving contests take place all over Canada, particularly in Nova Scotia, where whole communities compete (eg, an annual carving contest is held at Kejimkujik National Park).