*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 29, 2010
as "Carving Into Halloween History"
as "Carving Into Halloween History"
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
I was thinking the other day about the upcoming observation of Halloween and remembering the traditions that are associated with this end of October event. Parties, pumpkin carving, costumes, and trick-or-treating, and of course, the haul of candy that kept me in a sustained sugar high for days afterwards. These were all memories cast in the warm glow of childhood innocence.
But I became curious. Where did these traditions come from? What were their original purposes?
Halloween (or Hallowe’en) is a combination of the Celtic festival “Samhain” (“Summer’s End”) and the Christian holiday of All Saints Day. The name itself comes from Scotland of the 16th century and is a shortened version of “All Hallows Even.”
The Celts celebrated the festival as the end of the “Lighter Half” and the beginning of the “Darker Half” of the year and is sometimes called the Celtic New Year. They believed that on Samhain, the border between this life and the next became thin enough to allow spirits to pass through. Traditions welcomed family ancestors while warding off the evil spirits. The wearing of costumes, usually depicting one of the evil ones, was a disguise to protect one from the evil spirits by pretending to be one of them.
Here in America, one of the traditional activities is the carving of pumpkins with grinning faces. The original practice in Ireland was associated with “souling,” commemorating souls in purgatory using lanterns made out of large turnips. Here in America, the tradition has continued, using pumpkins, which are larger and easier to carve. The name “Jack O’Lantern,” comes from the name given the spooky lights that appeared above peat bogs, called “Jack of the Lantern.” The faces are usually evil-looking, again to ward off the like-minded spirits, but in recent years, many have turned to painting pumpkins instead of carving them, in order to keep those sharp instruments out of little hands.
Trick or Treating probably has its roots in the Middle-Ages practice of peasants going door to door and receiving food in exchange for prayers for the dead. The first known reference to this activity in North America was in a Kingston, Ontario newspaper reporting about the practice of young children, called “guising.” The children would perform a rhyme or a song, and then be rewarded with a treat. The term “trick or treat” emerged in Alberta, Canada in 1927, and apparently birthed the current understanding of a cutely veiled threat of some sort of mischief if the resident failed to fork over the treats. The activity became widespread in the U.S. during the 1930s, coinciding with the first appearance of mass-produced Halloween costumes.
Costumes today can range from the dime-store variety to highly elaborate (and expensive) depictions of classically evil characters, such as ghosts, goblins, and witches. But good characters also abound. Princesses and knights, popular cartoon characters, public figures, as well as creatures from popular movies, both good and evil.
One of the interesting practices in the early 20th century involved what was called “divination.” One tradition held that if an unmarried woman sat in a dark room in front of a mirror on Halloween night, she would see the face of her future husband in the mirror. Also, if that woman would peel an apple into one long continuous strip and toss it over her shoulder, the peel would land in the shape of her future spouse’s initial.
Other traditions are connected with a celebration of the fall harvest, such as hayrides and bobbing for apples.
In recent years, some practices have changed. Most parents accompany their children on their rounds, carefully inspecting the candy before letting them eat. This came out of an urban legend of sorts, stories of people intentionally poisoning candy. Interestingly, it seems that virtually all the documented cases of candy poisoning involved disturbed parents trying to harm their own kids. Most trick-or-treating is now done in daylight, rather than after sunset, keeping kids safe from traffic and the real evil people who roam the streets after dark in too many American communities.
As with many of our celebrations, Halloween is a combination of traditions from several cultures, molded into a night of fun and celebration.
However, it has become a night tempered by a very real concern for children’s safety.
How I wish that wasn’t so.