Down the Halloween River, for Real.


Can you believe it’s really almost Halloween? I remember putting up a few decorations at the beginning of the month, and thinking, “It’s still four weeks away!” But not anymore. The scary movies are almost over; the cold weather is setting in in earnest; and fall is in full swing. I just found myself looking up today, and wondering, How the heck did that happen?

But anyway. I had been planning for the past week or so to do a post on the origins of Halloween: something that I originally wrote to affix to the end of my kids’ book, Down the Halloween River. But then I forgot, and the lovely post of a blogger named Todd Louis reminded me. If you’d be interested in looking at his post, as well, it can be found here:

So now — most people think of Halloween as a dark and spooky holiday, but really it’s an old Christian celebration that dates back centuries. The word “Halloween” itself — or “All Hallows’ Eve” — was first used around 1745. Halloween is the first day of Hallowtide (or the Hallowmas season). The second day of Hallowtide is All Saints’ Day, and the third is All Souls’ Day. Hallowmas is a season when people are meant to remember the dead.

Halloween was celebrated in America, even as far back as the time of the colonies. Catholic colonists in Maryland, and Anglican ones in the South, brought the holiday from England, and included it in their calendars. But the New England Puritans didn’t celebrate Halloween, or even popular holidays like Christmas!

Moving up to the nineteenth century, it was Irish and Scottish immigration that significantly increased the celebration of Halloween in the United States. At that time, it was really only celebrated in immigrant communities; but by the beginning of the 20th century, it was celebrated all over the country.

Some say that Halloween is based on the Celtic celebration of Samhain (sah-win or sow-in) but others say that the two holidays are independent of one another. There are so many similarities, it’s hard to believe they’re not related — but either way, here’s a little bit of information about Samhain.

Samhain is a Gaelic festival. It tells the time that the harvest season ends, and winter begins. Some call it the Celtic New Year. Cattle were returned from the pastures at this time, and bonfires were lit, which were believed to be magical and powerful. Divination (or future-telling) rituals were often performed, as well.

What might have led eventually to the “ghostly” view of Halloween was the Celts’ belief that during Samhain, fairies or spirits (the Aos Sí, or ees-shee) could cross over into the human world. Trick-or-treating comes from Samhain, too. During the festival, people went “guising,” or door-to-door in costumes, reciting verses for treats. But the costumes may have also been a way of disguising themselves from the visiting Aos Sí.

There are many similarities between Samhain and Halloween, but of course the traditional Halloween was much different. It included going to church, and lighting candles over graves. In medieval Europe, people lit fires to guide the souls of the dead, and keep them from becoming ghosts that might haunt their homes. But in England, Ireland and Austria, people wanted the souls to visit their old earthly homes — and they lit candles (or “soul lights”) throughout their houses, to lead the souls back to them.

Like on holidays such as Ash Wednesday, people were encouraged not to eat meat on Halloween — and that’s what led to many popular Halloween foods, like apples, cider, and “soul cakes.” These cakes were given to “soulers” (like trick-or-treaters, but without the tricks) who went door-to-door singing, or saying prayers for the dead. When a person ate a soul cake, it stood for a soul being freed from purgatory.

The practice of “souling” goes back as far as the fifteenth century — if not farther — and went on in places like England, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Italy. Here’s a little song that dates back to 1891:

“A soul! A soul! A soul cake!

Please good missus, a soul cake!

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul,

Three for Him who made us all.”

Perhaps related to the Celtic idea of the Aos Sí, it was believed that the souls of the dead roamed the earth on Halloween. It was a final chance for them to take revenge against their enemies before they departed for the next world. And, like the Celts donned disguises against the Aos Sí, Christians also wore masks and costumes, so that they wouldn’t be recognized by any of the souls who were seeking revenge. A lot of Christians in Europe believed in the “danse macabre” (donce mah-cob) — when on Halloween night, the dead in the graveyards all rose up for a “wild, hideous carnival.”

But here’s another story about costumes. Back in the middle ages, churches would display the relics of martyred saints — things that the saints had worn, or owned. Yet some churches were too poor for such things, so they just let their members dress up as the saints, as a way to remember them.

And now — have you ever wondered about jack-o-lanterns? They’re probably the most popular symbol of Halloween, perhaps because they were once carried around by guisers to ward off evil spirits. The jack-o-lantern has a story all its own — and it goes like this.

One night, on his way home after he had been drinking, Jack ran into the devil. But Jack was a sinful man, who lied and drank too much; so he looked at this meeting as an opportunity to protect his future. First, he tricked the devil into climbing a tree. Once he was up there, Jack carved a cross into the tree, so that he couldn’t get down. In return for freeing him, Jack made the devil promise that he would never take his soul. And the devil agreed.

But because of that life of sin, Jack wasn’t let into heaven when he died. Yet the devil kept his promise — and he wouldn’t let Jack into hell, either. Instead, he threw a hot coal at Jack, and turned him away.

Since it was so cold out, Jack took the coal, and put it in a hollow turnip so that it wouldn’t go out. It’s said that, ever since that night, Jack has been wandering the earth with his lantern, and seeking a place to call his own.

Poor Silly Jack!
Poor Silly Jack!

So that’s our story of Halloween, folks! If you’re young enough — have fun trick-or-treating. And if you’re old enough — have fun drinking pumpkin spritzers!



5 thoughts on “Down the Halloween River, for Real.

  1. C.M., I have never had a pumpkin spritzer but as with ALL things pumpkin…I’m in! I like it when folks take the time to dig into the origins of Halloween. I periodically refresh my memory of where all this craziness actually came from and wonder just how many folks know where it arose from, meant at that time, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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