Learn about how and why we celebrate Halloween
When you carve your pumpkins into a jack-o'-lanterns and buy candy to give to little strangers in costume, did you know you are preparing to celebrate the eve of All Saints Day?
All Hallows Eve becomes Hallowe'en, get it?
It seems that in the eighth century A.D., Pope Gregory III decided to take over the Celtic holiday of Samhain when "the spirits of the dead roamed the land" and that also had a little celebration of the harvest thrown in. Pope Gregory's Christianized version seems to have approved of people dressing up as saints and begging door-to-door for soul cakes. Is this beginning to sound familiar?
Fast forward to the Protestant Reformation: The Catholic celebration of All Hallows Eve was out of favor with Protestants, but in England, Guy Fawkes Day began to be celebrated with bonfires and dummies in costume. That Guy Fawkes' plot to blow up Parliament was an excuse to celebrate just proves that people will take any excuse to throw a party.
Once the New World was settled, our colonist forefathers and mothers had a choice to make in the fall. Catholics and Anglicans were happy to commemorate All Hallows Eve, but the Puritans didn't approve of celebrating anything, even Christmas. Eventually, the Puritans warmed to the idea of Thanksgiving as a fall celebration, and some folks added Guy Fawkes Day back into the mix, so the parties tentatively began again. Halloween was the big exception for Puritans. They were terrified of witches. Remember the Salem witch trials?
Those of you with some Irish blood will be happy to know that Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famines brought many, many traditions to the celebration of fall. In Ireland, the Irish carved turnips into frightening faces. In their new home, they carved those gargoyle-faces into the softer pumpkin. Nuts and apples, once part of rural celebrations in which young women used them to try to guess whom they would marry, became parts of games and edibles at parties in autumn. The custom of bobbing for apples may well have been one of those games.
And what of trick-or-treating? The first known instance of costumed children going door-to-door begging for sweets was reported "in a 1920s issue of Ladies Home Journal."
How do I know this and more about the history of Halloween? All the facts and conjectures in this column are from the History Reference Center in the library's online DISCUS databases. The particular article is called "Halloween" from American Heritage, October 2001, and it's free, just like trick-or-treat candy. You do need to have a valid library card to receive the username and password, though.
An article called "Spirits of Halloween" adds the charming Irish story of Jack (Jack O'Lantern) who trapped the devil in a tree and carved a cross in the trunk so Satan couldn't get down. Jack was apparently a very naughty boy because he made a deal with the devil not to tempt him ever again. When he died, Jack was considered too bad for heaven and the devil wouldn't let him into hell. Poor Jack. He finds a place to rest in your Halloween decorations. This story is from a publication called "Early American Life," October 2002.
Do you need to know that to use History Reference Center? Not really. Just type the word "Halloween" into the search box, check the box on the left side of the page next to the words "Full Text," and click. Titles of articles, many illustrated with color photos, will appear at the touch of a mouse. Browse and enjoy.
Check out our website for upcoming programs and information about other databases at your library.
Fran Hays is the branch manager of the Beaufort library.