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Why Halloween?

Food For Thought

Throughout most of the month of October, we see pumpkins on porches, witches on broomsticks and ghosts in the shrubbery. We dress in frightening costumes, hide our faces with masks, and beg for treats from neighbors and total strangers. Why do we do it?
Those, and several other familiar traditions associated with Halloween, have their origins in ancient times and in a variety of cultures for reasons both secular and religious. Knowing what is the “correct” tradition and understanding its significance is often a mystery. Curious, I set out to learn more about Halloween traditions. Some things proved my personal beliefs to be correct; others left me even more confused than before.
Apparently the oldest Halloween celebrations (though not called Halloween until much, much later) held by the ancient Celts was called Samhain and was observed through their sacrifices to Druid deities. On the evening of Oct. 31, the spirits of all who died during the past year were believed to roam the earth. The Celts offered food and drink to ward off trouble caused by those spirits. During this festival, which marked the end of the harvest season, a huge wooden effigy, known as Wicker Man, often containing animal and human sacrifices, was burned on a sacred hilltop.
By the end of the first century, The Romans had conquered the majority of the Celtic lands and incorporated some of their traditions into their own religious observances. In Britain, this included the Roman festival of Pomona, goddess of fruit trees, and may have been the source of the tradition of bobbing for apples. The Roman Catholic Church tried to win converts by modifying some of the older traditions. For example in 835, Pope Gregory IV tried to replace Samhain with All Saints’ Day, but it was not accepted until it was instituted at a monastery, in France, in the year 998.
From Scotland came various methods of predicting the future, and the jack-o-lantern, carved not from a pumpkin, but from a large turnip. These traditions spread into Britain and were joined and mingled with local folktales. According to one tale, the soul of a dead person, named Jack-O-Lantern, was banned from both heaven and hell and condemned to wander the earth with a lantern. The orange pumpkin and dark night are thought to be the source of the use of the colors orange and black for seasonal decorations.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, a great hysterical fear of witches swept Europe, leading to the persecution and execution of thousands of women. It was believed witches rode flying brooms and were able to assume the form of black cats, or that cats, known as “familiars,” communicated in some way with witches. So, witches and black cats became associated with Halloween.
Halloween traditions and attitudes toward various practices varied widely among the immigrants who came to populate the United States. New England, initially settled by Puritans and strict Protestants, rejected the pagan holiday for the most part, but subsequent British colonists successfully transplanted many beliefs and practices to the southern states. Later during the late 19th century, Irish immigrants contributed to the continuance of these traditions and superstitions. Eventually, as new influences and education weaned people away from beliefs, fewer people took the holiday seriously and it gradually became a children’s holiday.
Up until the mid-20th century, what has been known as Beggar’s Night, Mischief Night, or Devil’s Night, was indeed a night for mischief. Children dressed in costumes begged for treats from householders and, if the proffered treats were not acceptable, retaliated by performing some annoying or destructive prank. Tipping over sheds and outhouses was a common occurrence, as was scattering garbage or woodpiles, releasing livestock from pens or barns, or putting a carriage or farm wagon on the roof of a barn. Lesser pranks included soaping windows, filling mailboxes with leaves, or throwing doormats onto the porch roofs.
By the 1970s, the trend was toward more generous treats, thus avoiding most pranks, and some householders began demanding the beggar perform a trick to earn the treat. With unsubstantiated reports of poisoned treats or of needles and razor blades inserted into apples or popcorn balls, children were instructed to accept only commercially packaged treats, effectively ending Beggar’s Night, as it had been known for so long. Today’s children are encouraged to attend organized, chaperoned parties or to beg for treats only if accompanied by their parents.