Immigrants Brought Us Halloween (and many other great traditions)

Many of the great holiday traditions that we currently enjoy were brought to the United States by way of immigration, and Halloween is no different. Human fascination with death and the afterlife has long been part of our history, but the tradition of celebrating Halloween was originally started in Europe when Pope Gregory III, the leader of the Christian world, mandated Nov. 1 as a date to celebrate not just all martyrs (for Martyrs Day), but “all saints,” too.

The Celtic New Year  was also celebrated from October 31st to November 1st, and was a day for lighting bonfires and singing chants to ward off any evil spirits. Samhain, as this day was called, was considered a day when the dead could walk the earth. The traditional Halloween colours also came from the Celts for whom the colour black represented winter, and orange represented summer. This meant that the New Year would be the one day when both colours crossed over, a tradition that we still have today.

Here are some interesting facts about Halloween

  1. Halloween itself is a Scottish term that derived from the words Holy Eve in reference to Samhain.
  2. Halloween celebrations in the United States really gathered steam in the 1800s, when Irish-American immigration exploded.
  3. Trick or treating traditions began in the Middle-Ages when children (and sometimes poor adults) would dress up in costumes and go around door to door during Hallowmas begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said on behalf of the dead.  This was called “souling” and the children were called “soulers”
  4. The earliest known reference to the term trick-or-treat shows signs that the term is also an import…from Canada. It is found printed in the November 4, 1927 edition of the Blackie, Alberta Canada Herald.

What about Pumpkins?

The Irish brought the tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack OLantern to America. This tradition stemmed from an Irish myth about Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil for his own monetary gain. When Jack died, God didn’t allow him into heaven, and the Devil didn’t let him into hell, so Jack was sentenced to roam the earth for eternity. The Irish started to carve demonic faces into vegetables to make lanterns to frighten away old Stingy Jack on Samhain when they believed that the souls of the dead walked the earth.

But, the original Jack OLantern was not a pumpkin. Pumpkins did not exist in Ireland. Ancient Celtic cultures in Ireland carved turnips on All Hallow’s Eve, and placed an ember in them, to ward off evil spirits.

While pumpkins are now considered native to the United States, and were widely eaten as a part of the Native American diet, pumpkins may have originated in South America, perhaps around Buenos Aires, according to the Smithsonian. Pumpkin seeds found in Mexico and dated between 7000 and 5500 BC are the oldest known in the world.

Halloween is just another example of the richness of immigration historically in the United States.

We think the world is better for all the richness of culture. Happy Halloween from all of us at Harlan York & Associates.

Written by: Harlan York

Immigration Attorney Harlan York is Former Chair, Immigration Section, NJ State Bar Association and Former Co-Chair, NY State Bar Association CFLS Immigration Committee. Mr. York appeared on National Television on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Primer Impacto on Univision, as well as Telemundo, NBC, and PBS. He was honored as First Ever Immigration Lawyer of The Year in NJ by Best Lawyers.

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