In my 1950s childhood, we didn’t use pumpkins for carving at Halloween, but a turnip or swede. I used to take my turnip into school and hollow it out with a spoon, the teacher helping with a knife to carve out the face. We put a small piece of candle inside and sat by their flickering light listening to witchy stories. Then I took my turnip lantern home and put it on display in the window to ‘ward off evil spirits’! They used to smell after a while and sometimes set on fire!! I expect that’s why, in the old days they put them on the doorstep along with some soul cakes. The soul cakes were to represent the souls of those who had died during the year and poor people and children came round to the houses and sang a song for which the householder rewarded them with one of the soul cakes.
I think it was the Irish who took the custom to America and that is the origin of their celebrations today.
Radio 4 podcast about English traditions for Halloween.
A recipe for Soul Cakes.