What are the origins of Halloween, Trick or Treating and Pumpkins?

What are the origins of Halloween, Trick or Treating and Pumpkins?

When thinking of pumpkins, one automatically thinks of traditional Halloween celebrations in the USA, pumpkins originate from Mexico and the southern states of America.  However, the roots of Jack Lanterns go back to the marshes of rural Ireland in the early 1600’s.  Folklore states that a shadowy figure of ‘Stingy Jack’ roams the marsh land, after repeatedly tricking the Devil and losing! He is punished and forced to walk for all eternity, locked out of Heaven and barred from Hell, with nothing but an eternal ember from the Devil himself to light the way, the story is that he carves a turnip to house the ember and to lure tired travellers to certain death in the watery marshland.

Traditional Turnip Lantern from Dublin Museum

This tale coincides with ‘Ignis Faccus’ a Medieval, Latin term meaning false or foolish fire, when rotting vegetation on marsh land caused flammable phosphorescent gasses that would spontaneously ignite from the earth, these were thought to not only be Jack, but other spectres or ‘will o the wisps’.

People of Ireland during this time continued in the ancient pagan celebration of Samhain, one which predates Roman times which marked the start of ancient winter. One of the rituals that frequently place was to walk from house to house in search of food and drink, which became the origins of Trick or Treating.  Long before street lamps became common place in the rural countryside, many people would carve turnips, potatoes or other root vegetables and add candles or coals to fashion make shift lanterns to help guide the way.  On occasion these would be carved with crude faces to scare and ward off evil spirits, a tradition that continues today.


During the Great Potato Famine of the 1840’s many people emigrated from Ireland to America, where they continued to celebrate Samhain, and All Hallows Eve, the night before the Christian festival All Hallows or All Saints Day on 1st November, this was believed to be when the ether between the living and the dead was at its thinnest.  On arrival they found a new crop, the pumpkin, larger and easier to carve than the turnip.  As a child growing up in the 70s in the fenlands the tradition of carving turnips, rather than the American style pumpkins was still very common, the carving of turnips is almost impossible, their thick skins and tough insides make for a rough ride when trying to hollow them out, however they do look much more gruesome than the cheery orange pumpkin, there is however a certain aroma of the inside of a turnip being burnt by a candle that will forever remind me of my childhood.

turnip pumpkin

Pumpkins aren’t just for carving, they are absolutely delicious in soups or roasted (I would select a smaller cooking pumpkin, rather than a large carving pumpkin for this purpose).  Don’t forget to dispose of your carved pumpkins carefully, many farms and woodland trusts will now take your used fruit to feed animals over the winter months.

vintage retro 70s pumpkin halloween 70s house manchester

Our own limited edition offering this year is our matching tea towel and mug set, inspired by vintage tinware of the 60s and 70s, you can shop our range of pumkins here. 


vintage retro 70s pumpkin halloween 70s house manchester

Image via Theresa Gromski