October means Halloween and pumpkin carving and pies and candy bags and trick-or-treat. But as well as being an excuse for us to dress up and gorge on all manner of delicious delicacies, it’s also a festival with a long history and association with traditional foods.
The festival began in earnest around 2000 years ago with the Celts, the groups that lived in what is now Ireland, the U.K. and France. Back then, the people of this region celebrated the New Year on November 1st, and so the day that is now Halloween, (then known as Samhain, pronounced sow-in), symbolized the beginning of a dark, cold time in the region. The Celts believed that on this evening the lines between the living and the dead were blurred and the dead actually walked the earth. This made it easier for Druid priests to make predictions about the future, an important moment in the lives of people who led a relatively volatile, nature dependent existence.
The occasion was marked by traditions that persist, in one form or another, to this day. Bonfires originated here as part of Halloween tradition and were used to burn animals and crops as sacrifices. Dressing up also has its macabre origins in this time: as people tried to tell each other’s fortunes during the celebrations, revelers would wear costumes created from animal heads and skins to disguise themselves.
As the holiday spread further afield and evolved, countries developed their own unique traditions and methods of celebration, many of which revolve around food.
In the West, these foods are not necessarily just for eating, but also play a part in popular games and activities. Take, for example, the practice of bobbing for apples, (attempting to use your mouth to retrieve apples from a bucket of water), and the lesser known “Snap Apple Night”, a part of Halloween season in which apples are traditionally eaten around a fire. This association between Halloween and apples probably comes from the period in which the Romans conquered Celtic territory and merged Samhain with their own festivals. One of these festivals was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, whose symbol was an apple.
Pumpkins carved into Jack O’Lanterns are a Halloween staple in North America but actually have their spooky roots in a ghost story told throughout the same Ancient Celtic world. Centering on “Stingy Jack”, it’s a tale about a man so averse to spending money that he cuts a deal with the devil to whom he promises his soul to avoid paying for his round of drinks. But Jack tricks the devil and imprisons him in a coin that he keeps in his pocket alongside a silver cross. Later Jack makes another exchange: the devil’s freedom in return for a guarantee that he won’t go to hell. The flipside that Jack overlooks at the time is that there’s no space for him in heaven either. Fated to roam the earth forever more, Jack receives only a turnip and burning coal for his journey. He carves out the former to hold the hot charcoal and has used this self-fashioned lantern to light his way ever since. The Irish still refer to him as “jack o’ lantern” and for centuries people have replicated the turnip lantern at Halloween in his memory. When large numbers of Irish emigrated to North America, they took this tradition with them, swapping turnips for the more readily available pumpkins.
Apples and pumpkins, (along with trick-or-treat candy), might be the most immediately recognizable Halloween foods in the English speaking world, but other countries have their own unique culinary traditions. Spain and Portugal both observe their festivals with baked food; the former with “Pan de Muerto”, (anise and orange glazed “bread of the dead” shaped into bones and skulls), while the latter use cinnamon and herbs to create sugar cakes. The Czech Repubilc, meanwhile, makes a point of drinking cold milk to “cool the souls roasting in Purgatory”, while in Mexico the favorite foods of deceased relatives are sweetly placed at their graves.
So how about in China? Well, there are certainly no Halloween foods here; in fact, Halloween is not much of a concern at all. Unlike other festivals like Christmas, Halloween has remained resolutely Western. In China, it is only the International Schools that will provide children with Halloween activities, and the adults will see little beyond themed nights and drink promotions at clubs and bars.
China does, of course, have Qingming festival, in which the living pay respects to the dead, and Yu Lan, in which the dead are believed to visit the realm of the living. But they tend to be a little more somber. Modern Halloween, it seems, despite its long history and globe-trotting reach, is yet to make a serious impact on the Middle Kingdom.