This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller
Ah, it is that time of the year again. Death in the air, children arguing over who would make a better devil, store employees stocking shelves with fake blood and decapitated body parts, dentists gleefully waiting with anticipation while looking at yachts on the Internet, teenagers using math to calculate X houses equals X amount of candy and teachers buying dry ice and fake spider webs to turn classrooms into lairs fit for any witch.
Halloween is said to be the best time of the year when society loosens its grip and breaking taboos is expected. Sure, we have the Season of Giving, New Years, and the Season of Remembrance, but Halloween is special. It is the time of the year when one can expect to get without any obligation to give, a time of no resolutions and less suicides and a time of popcorn and candy instead of a week’s worth of colorful egg salad sandwiches.
Halloween is a vital time for our society, it allows people to just let loose. Social rankings are obscured, witchcraft is applauded and begging is encouraged. It is socially acceptable for a child not allowed to watch horror films to walk around town with an axe lodged in his head and covered in blood. In a country where parents are scolded for letting their children wander at night and children are drilled to not talk or take from strangers, Halloween demands a child to take candy from multiple strangers—at night. So, in order to welcome the spirits of Halloween, I will offer a few Halloween fun facts.
These stories of the origins of Halloween and the customs that go with it are not your stereotypical stories that we have all come to know. Since history varies, the following are variations of the tale of Halloween.
The ancient Celts had a festival around this time of year called the Festival of Samhain, which translates into “summer’s end.” They would offer food to the gods in thanks. They would travel from house to house asking for food donations to be taken to places of offering. The Celts had a sacred fire that they burned all during Samhain, a ritual that included taking a burning coal from the fire and walking home in the dark to light their hearths. Because they were afraid of evil spirits in the dark, the Celts would wear fantastic costumes and carve scary faces on the coal carriers in order to frighten the evil spirits away.
Younger Celts would designate a night close to Samhain where they would gather together and race each other to the doors of houses where the occupants would give them money or the treat of white bread. Some scholars believe this to be the origins of trick or treating but others say the custom came from medieval times. These people would dress in costumes and sing and dance through the streets, stopping at each house to ask for food and drink as a reward for their performances.
According to some, the name Halloween did not come from All Hallows Eve, but through a process that started with a ninth century pope. Pope Gregory IV proclaimed a day to celebrate all saints because by this time, there were too many saints for each to have a special day. The day was called All Saints’ Day, which is still celebrated today. The night before was a preparation for the celebration to come and was dubbed a holy night called All Hallow Even (hallow meaning “saint” or “holy”) to create a night and a day celebration just like Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Through the centuries, All Hallow Even was shortened to Hallow Even, to Hallowe’en and finally to Halloween.
It is strange that Halloween is really only celebrated in North America, with Mexico and the United States being the most hardcore celebrators because it was introduced by the Irish immigrants who left Ireland during the Great Potato Famine (the same Irish who gave us St. Patrick’s Day; don’t you just want to kiss the Irish?)
In Europe, turnip was the cheapest plant around until explorers brought the potato from South America. Since the turnip was cheap and readily available, Europeans used it for a multitude of purposes including carrying burning coals and for carving frightening faces. So when the Irish came to America, they had a dilemma: turnips were scarce (who likes turnips?) and turnips were expensive (apparently the rich do). Luckily, America has a cheap, abundant and large plant ideal for warding away malignant specters—the pumpkin. That is why we carve pumpkins instead of turnips. Speaking of Jack-o’-lanterns…
Here is a story you can tell your friends to invite the Halloween spirits and to learn the origins of the name Jack-o’-lantern. There once was a man named Jack who loved his alcohol very much. He met the devil in a bar and asked him to pay his tab in return for his soul. The devil agreed.
Jack, once momentarily sober, realized what he had done and was afraid. Walking along, he happened to run into the devil once more so he asked for his soul back. The devil said no. He then asked for an apple from a nearby apple tree. The devil agreed and climbed the tree to fetch an apple. Jack quickly brought out his knife and whittled a cross onto the trunk, trapping the devil in the tree. Later on the devil managed to escape but, with a grudge against Jack.
A few years later, Jack died. He went to Heaven where St. Peter told him of his many sins and was kicked out. Jack then went to Hell where the devil, still carrying the grudge, refused him a place. Jack, now forced to roam the Earth for all eternity, was snacking on a turnip when the devil took pity on him (and they say “his small heart grew three sizes that day”) and gave him a burning coal to light his path. Jack hollowed out his turnip and placed the coal inside—which he uses to lead unwary travelers off the roads and into the deadly marshes where he disappears, leaving his victims alone in the dark. Jack-o’-lantern was the name given to the carved vegetables used to ward off Jack and his like, called ignis fatuus (Latin for “foolish fire”) hence, the carving of pumpkins at Halloween.