How the Irish Created Halloween and Gave Us the Jack O’ Lantern

How the Irish Created Halloween and Gave Us the Jack O’ Lantern

Posted by Jessie Tyler on 30th Oct 2020

Halloween is based on one of the most ancient of Irish holidays, Samhain, known in the Christian calendar as All Saint’s Day but known to the Irish as the traditional beginning of the new year. But what many don’t realize is that it is this combination of pagan and Christian ritual in Ireland explicitly that gave birth to today’s contemporary Halloween celebrations.

The Celtic New Year was once thought to be a time when the veil between our world and the spiritual world was very thin. A festival of Samhain was celebrated on the first day of November and it was a gateway to the otherworld. At this time it was thought that spirits wandered the Earth looking for bodies to possess. People made their homes inhospitable to keep the spirits from entering them. Candles, fireplaces, all fires were put out to make the house dark and less inviting. The tradition of dressing up in costumes and painting faces in an ugly way was to make themselves unappealing to the spirits. Even loud noises were thought to frighten spirits away. The holiday is very much about avoiding wandering spirits.


"Snap-Apple Night," by Daniel Maclise, 1833. Based on a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Co. Cork. (Wikimedia Commons)

All Hallows Eve came about in approx 700 AD, All Souls Day and All Saints Day became celebrations of the Catholic Church. It was during the same time of year as the Pagan festivals. The Pagan feast of Samhain was very popular and the Catholic Church realized they couldn’t stop it. So they decided to make it Christian instead. The notion of a close connection to the dead was attached to this new holiday. They called it Halloween or Eve of the Feast of All Hallows.

Bringing it to the United States

Americans may not realize that Halloween arrived here in the 1840s with the Famine-era Irish immigrants. The United States was a Protestant country with Puritan leaning beliefs. The Irish brought their Catholic beliefs with them when they came to the country, and they included Halloween and its mix of Christian and Pagan customs.


Samhain aligned with the last harvest for the year. Nuts, apples, and wheat that were in abundance during that time of year influenced the customs of Halloween. There are games associated with Apples for this reason.


The tradition of carving pumpkins in a Jack-O'-Lantern came from a story told in many variations. An interesting version of the story is as follows:

Jack was a man who was known for being a sinner. He was also quite cheap. When the Devil came to get his soul from him one night, Jack was smart enough to ask the Devil to have a drink with him first. He convinced the Devil and so they did. However, being cheap, Jack said that the Devil would need to pay for his. Once the Devil heard this he turned himself into money (a coin) planning on turning himself back afterward. Jack grabbed the coin and put it with his rosary beads that were in his pocket. The Devil was quite uncomfortable and pleaded for release. Jack agreed to release him as long as the Devil gave him one year. The Devil agreed.

After the year, the Devil came back to get Jack. Somehow Jack got him to climb a tree first. Jack carved a cross into the tree and the Devil was stuck there for a long time and quite uncomfortable. When Jack aged and finally died, Heaven turned him away because he was cheap, and Hell turned him away because of his pranks.

Jack had to wander around until the Judgement Day. The Devil did give him a hot coal so he could see. He put it in a carved turnip and it was his lantern that he traveled with. Supposedly he wanders to this day.

In the United States, pumpkins were more common than turnips, and easier to carve. This is how the carved pumpkins (Jack-O’-Lantern) came to be.


A Large Fire

The bonfire would cause dreams of who you would marry. You would cut your hair and put it into the fire and dream of your spouse. This day was considered a Celt fire holiday. Be sure to check and make sure it’s safe in your area before you follow this tradition.

Finding Cabbage

Girls in the area would go out into the cabbage fields and pull one up. If there was dirt on the roots their husband would have wealth. If the cabbage tasted sweet or bitter, this would reveal the man’s personality. Did you plant your cabbage this Spring?

Traditional Dinner

Raw Onions, Curly Kale Cabbage, and Boiled Potato are given as the traditional Irish Halloween dinner. Inside the potato, children will find clean coins wrapped in baking paper that they can keep. You’ll have to stock up on ingredients for this favorite.

A Barnbrack Cake

Fruit bread is the traditional Halloween cake in Ireland. Every member of the family gets some. There is enjoyment in the outcome as there is a ring, a coin and a piece of rag in each cake. If you get the rag then your financial future is bleak, if you get the coin then your year will be prosperous. The ring signals continued happiness or romance. Sounds delicious but watch out for your teeth!


The tradition of dressing up in scary costumes dates back to Celtic times. The Celtic Druids would dress up in very elaborate costumes to disguise themselves from spirits. If you have kids you should take them trick or treating.

A Leaf of Ivy

Everyone in the family places an ivy leaf into a cup of water. It is left overnight and undisturbed. If it has not developed any spots then the person who put the leaf in the cup will have 12 months of health until the next Halloween. If not your health will surely be poor. You might want to purchase an Ivy plant and try this tradition.

Snap Apple

In the game Snap Apple, an apple is suspending from a string and the children wear blindfolds. The first child to get a big bite of the apple gets to keep their prize. This is also where bobbing for Apples came from with the Apples being put in a basin of water. Have you ever played these?

Stopping Fairies with Dust

Goblins and fairies would try to get all the souls they could on Halloween. However, if they ran into someone who threw dust that came from under foot the fairy or goblin would be forced to let go of any souls they had captured. Finally, an excuse to sweep the floor!

Farm Animals

Farm animals were anointed with holy water so they would stay safe. If they showed any health issues their owner would spit on them to keep spirits away. You might not want to spit on your dog, that’s just a little gross.


Halloween is an ancient Celtic celebration that has become acquainted with Derry, where the locals have embraced the feast of legend and myth. They have nurtured and developed it and brought it to our current time. Derry was given the title of Best Halloween Destination in the World by USA Today in 2016. To steal this title, it beat Dracula’s den in Transylvania and Salem, Massachusetts.

The first celebrations in the modern times were in the mid-1980s. Some local bars began hosting Halloween events and people came in with homemade Halloween costumes. It became a specialty of the locals. Since then, the costume design has vastly improved. Local people of Derry plan their costumes for months in advance and there are pop up stores everywhere for people looking for fangs and fake blood.

Derry City Council in 1986, decided to make Halloween more of an organized event. There was a tiny stage in Guildhall Square and some music. Those first few hundred curious people have now multiplied to tens of thousands of people who return every year for this event. This strong community and all the local children make the celebrations special. There is even a main Carnival parade.

Working with the North West Carnival Initiative, 600 people bring the city to life with the Carnival parade, drawing huge crowds of almost 50,000 people. This figure which grows each year as word about the event continues to spread.

People flock here from Europe, Canada, the United States, and even Russia. They come to see the colorful display which is steeped in local legend and folklore. Over 90,000 people enjoyed the rich program of events over the five days last year. This year there are plans now to extend the festivities to a full week.

The 2018 theme will revisit the magical Under the Samhain Moon narrative. Last year this really caught the imagination last year garnering a number of business and tourism awards, including the Tourism Project of the Year at the UTV Business Eye Awards and the Northern Ireland Tourism Award for ‘Best Northern Ireland Event or Festival Experience (International) 2018. Visitor numbers are expected to continue to soar this year for this wonderful fun festival in Derry.


If you are thinking about putting something together from our collection for your Halloween costume, we have you covered! There are several novelty items to choose from that you can pair together or with other things to look fabulous on Halloween.

Originally published on Oct 30, 2019