OK…. well I guess that I have managed to more or less “dance” around the periphery of this rather goofy, yet very fun day for long enough. I’ve done many postings about Halloween-related things, even as you have seen, or you will see, the fact of Houdini’s untimely death on this date. But now I shall at long last give you all some background on the day itself and how it came to be, as well as some bits about related icons. But I wish to point out to you at the very beginning of this posting instead of (just) at the end when I usually do it that the source for all of my info. on this subject is a fine and fascinating book which I have used many times before for this Blog, and that is “Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things” by Charles Panati. It is a superb resource for any and
everything trivial (or less so) that you may have ever wondered about!! I first heard of it on John Ailee’s radio program “Ekletikos” on radio station KUT-FM in Austin, TX., and have been mining it for info. ever since. I was able to find a copy at a Used Book Store, and I know for certain that it can be found at many such stores, as well as ordered on Amazon.com and other resources. I strongly recommend it!!
“All Hallows Eve”; 5’th Century BC, Ireland.
Way back during the misty days of Celtic Ireland, this day was indeed a festival for ghosts, witches and the like, but far from being the fun-for-the-kiddies type of thing that it has long since become, in the olllld days it was a deadly serious business for grown-ups. It was called “All Hallows Eve” back then and it was always held on the night of October 31, which was the official end of summer by the Celtic calendar. All throughout good Celtic homes, fires and hearths were extinguished in order to make the places cold and less inviting to the various dis-embodied spirits which were quite seriously believed to be lurking about. And then all of these earnest Celtic homefolks would gather outside the village around a large bonfire which had been kindled by a Druid Priest as a way of thanking the Sun God for the previous season’s harvest as well as to frighten away the ill-spirits.
These Ill Spirits, and the Reason for Dressing Up…
It was a Celtic belief that persons who had died during the previous year would gather up and choose the body of some living being to inhabit for
the coming year before they could pass peacefully into the next life. To frighten away these would-be body snatchers, the good Celts would dress themselves up as Witches, Demons and Hobgoblins, and go dancing ’round their villages and through their empty, fireless homes making as much noise as they could, leading to the bonfire outside. ANNND (this is the deadly serious part) any villager who was deemed either by dress or behavior to be already possessed by these spirits and thus could be bundled up and dispatched to the flames as a human sacrifice and as a warning to other spirits who were thinking of taking up residence in a human body.
Romans, Immigrants, and the Conversion to The Romans adopted many of the Celtic practices during their long occupation of the British Ilses, but in 61 AD human sacrifice was outlawed, so they took up the Egyptian practice of consigning effigies to the flames (various statuette representations of persons who were important in the lives of Pharaohs). In time, as belief in evil spirits waned, many of these various Halloween practices lightened up into ritualized amusements (FUN STUFF!!). The Irish potato famine of the 1840’s brought many new Irish immigrants to the United States, and they in turn brought many of their customs with them, including their old custom of Halloween dress-ups and mischief-making.
The “Jack O’- Lantern”
One of these customs became one which New England agricultural practices obliged them to modify into an old tradition of Halloween which is now quite familiar. The ancient Celts had followed a practice of carving out the insides of a large turnip and carving a demons face on it and then lighting the inside with a candle as a part of their spirit scaring ritual. These Irish immigrants found not so many turnips around in New England, but whole fields filled with pumpkins which were more than suitable substitutes. The term “Jack O’- Lantern” comes from Irish folk lore. The bit goes that a man named Jack, a notorious lush and a tight-wad to boot, tricked the devil into climbing up a tree, and then carved a cross on the tree’s trunk to trap ‘ol Satan in the tree wherein presumably he would cease to tempt Jack any more. But upon death Jack, who because of his drinking couldn’t get into heaven also found his entrance to hell blocked by an angry Satan begged the old devil for something to light his way through the darkness he was condemned to wonder about in until judgement day. The Devil gave him one little burning ember which Jack put inside one of those hollowed out turnips we mentioned before, in order to keep it going for awhile. Hence the term “Jack ‘O-Lantern”. This comes rather close to Linus’s “Great Pumpkin” bit in my humble opinion, but alas, poor Linus’s idea never really caught on. Too bad, that!
“Trick or Treat!!!”
According to Mr. Panati, the most accepted theory for the origin of this most fun part of the Halloween tradition has its roots in the mid-ninth century European custom of “souling”. On “All Souls Day”, went from one village to the other begging for square-shaped biscuits with currants called “soul-cakes”. The beggars would promise to offer up prayers for the donors generosity, the bigger the cake, the bigger the prayers. This was important, because the amount of prayers a person amassed during his life would shorten his stay in limbo before entering heaven. So give me a big prayer cake it’s a treat for you, but a small one made it a trick for me to play on you, I believe. So “Trick or Treat” in return for a nice “Snickers” bar is a small price to pay for your immortal soul, yes?? FUUUUUUUUUN!!