The exact origins of
Halloween are a little muddy. So where the actual origin is or who celebrated
first is lost in lore, so we're only going to back up to that time when
Catholicism began to attempt to override the pagan rituals. They tucked Church
holidays to pagan ones because who wants to give up a great holiday? These
folks were already celebrating with a harvest festival or willingly doing
things to appease the nature gods for a better harvest next year.
Probably the most accepted origin of
Halloween, that merely means the somewhat similar concept and celebration that
shows up the most though the various European countries… Got the idea? Okay.
Long story short, Halloween was a
harvest celebration, complicated by All Saints Day I'll
save you from how they only looked at the year as three seasons and not four,
yet recognized the four lunar divisions of time. That's a whole different
The pagan celebration of the harvest included the idea that
their beloved family members would watch over them. Much like a favorite uncle
might be watching to be certain his niece or nephew were successful and bountiful.
Add All Saints Day in there when people were to celebrate the Catholic saints. Not
the football team. Although I'm certain that Saints fans would love such a
holiday, but the Church claimed it first. Furthermore football, as a sport, had
not been developed yet and that's probably because they didn't have much
leisure time between Spring planting to when they were harvesting everything by
hand with only a scythe.
So on All Hallow's Eve that
favorite long-since-dead family member came to visit or that's what they
believed might happen. People wanted to be prepared and show off that they would
survive the long cold winter and manage to feed their family with their
abundant harvest even if that harvest was pitiful. To prove their wealth, they
set the table with an extra plate in honor of that dead family member and
placed food on the plate. It is a little gross, isn't it?
Now depending on which country- it
varies slightly… This morphed into a trickster night
when young folks often
would rattle a few things and make their neighbors think this dead family
member did come back from the grave and wasn't exactly pleased. In a few
places, young men believed that the dead could come back, not as zombies but as
spirits. And what better place to find them than in a cemetery? So they challenged each
other to surviving a run through the cemetery or spend a whole night there!
Yes, a cemetery was a dangerous place, especially in the dark. There were
plenty of markers that could trip a person who was running, or a partially sunk
grave or worse they could fall into a freshly dug grave where the body was not
The holiday changed slightly into the idea
of sharing that wasted plate of food with neighbors or the less fortunate in
the neighborhood. Eventually it changed again into children going
from house to house to sample the sweet treats that everyone had made for the
The wearing of costumes appears to
come from the young men not wanting to be caught by those who would probably
know them and might tell the families. This disguise was referred to mumming.
Mumming was used for plays and other forms of entertainment usually by
traveling bands of actors.
Now the pumpkin/jack o' lantern is
even more complicated. For starters, the pumpkin didn't exist at least not in
Europe way back in those days. Gourds did but apparently in southern countries.
Also the lowly turnip wasn't in the cucurbit family, but it's believed that it
was large enough to hollow
out and hold a candle thus giving a person a means
of lighting their path or maybe to show a doorway of a house willing to give
out a treat. The actual jack o' lantern derived its name from the light that
flickered over the peat bogs. It's what we would call foxfire but they called
Jack O'Lantern. That's not that the same as that internet browser app called
Most northern European countries
tended to celebrate this crazy holiday, but each area had its own flavor and
slightly different traditions. But the concept of a harvest festival was not
limited to Europe. It seems people everywhere enjoyed a party and what better
thing to celebrate than a bountiful harvest?
Now in the United States, it
appears the Swedes brought mumming, dressing up, in the form
of parades to
Philadelphia, but it was the Celtic people that brought Samhain with them to
the new country. And like most forms of entertainment, when there were no
X-boxes or TV's to occupy the time after the sun had set, it didn't take much
to catch on with the general public. The fun spread as these people moved
around the country. The downside of it was those who weren't so innocent also
took up mumming. Getting drunk and roaming around in costume was frowned upon.
So it was outlawed, except many disliked the new laws that prevented their fun.
So eventually it was allowed in controlled situations. It fizzled
out in most places, except in Philadelphia, PA. and Hagerstown, MD.
But the fun of visiting houses for
treats on All Hallow's Eve, Halloween, or Samhain (pronounced SAH-win or
SOW-in) stayed and became a children's holiday. It was a chance for them to go
mumming. It was only celebrated in a few places in the USA before the 1900's.
So what happened to those adults who honestly loved being mummers and meant no
harm? They banded together into several small clubs in the Philadelphia area
where they began building elaborate costumes and received a permit to march on
New Year's Day 1901.
That parade is one of the oldest
parades in the USA. If you've never seen it, it's worth watching. Many of the
costumes are 100 pounds or more and require strong bodies. They train all year
long. No military marching, or lazy shuffling from these folks, they dance or
what they call strut for a mile! Over the years, they have followed old traditions
that often weren't and still aren't politically correct. One of the mummers has
come forward and said we all keep learning, and the clubs involved are trying
hard to be more welcoming to all people this year.
I know as a child I scrambled down
the steps when my mom's wake-up call was to say the parade was on the TV. A
special dance is performed with a traditional chant. Think of a military-type
marching song and you've got the flow of the chant.
Here we stand
before your door,
As we stood the year
Give us whiskey;
give us gin,
Open the door and
let us in.
Or give us
something nice and hot
Like a steaming
hot bowl of Pepper Pot.
Except I refused to eat Pepper Pot
and I didn't care how traditional it was. I refused even say "Pepper
Pot" instead I substituted beef potpie. Really one of the few foods
I ever refused it eat other than brussel sprouts and it wasn't the tripe that
it contained that made me turn my nose up - it was those green peppers and onions.
But it was the traditional song of
the parade that I think every child in the Philadelphia area could sing, James
A. Bland's "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" probably because we heard it several times during the parade.
dem golden slippers!
dem golden slippers!
slippers I’m gwine to wear,
dey look so neat.
dem golden slippers!
dem golden slippers!
slippers I’se gwine to wear,
walk de golden street.
As an adult, I discovered that
James A. Bland was a very talented Black man who often couldn't find work
because suitable parts went to people in blackface. Some things will never make
sense to me. Nor did I realize as a child that this was a religious song
about dying and going to heaven. I guess heaven is paved in gold.
So whether you call it Halloween,
All Hallow's Eve, Samhain, or about ten other names with virtually the same
meaning, it falls on Oct 31. It's a hodgepodge of traditions that have filtered
into a simple childrens' holiday. It's a spooky, fun time for everyone. It's a
chance for families to gather around the kitchen table and figure out how to
carve a pumpkin without stabbing each other! Okay, I promise I'm joking.
And just how much reflective tape can a child wear without making a Darth Vader
costume look like a construction pylon for controlling traffic?
If you love the idea of keeping old
traditions alive, try setting a plate at the table in honor of a loved one who
has passed. Count a few blessings. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are, how
far we've come, and just what we do have.
Halloween wasn't celebrated too
much in the early days of the west except for a few people who brought the
traditions of their country with them. The closest ranch might be a full day's
drive away so the holiday passed without any fanfare. If the town's population
was mostly a particular ethnic group that celebrated, it was possible that the
children did, too. Otherwise it took until the 1920's for the evening to truly
be a holiday.
Today in many parts of Europe,
people still visit the cemeteries of family members and decorate the graves
with flowers. In the northern hemisphere, we are done with the harvest of most
crops and we are heading into the quiet months of winter with less light and a
chance for more snuggle time with those we love.
A long time ago, I spent a
Halloween in labor. She wasn't born until the next day, but I'll never forget
that particular Halloween. I leaned against the wall by the door because it was
too much trouble to sit between the little ghosts and goblins looking for
treats. In fact many of my fun memories from childhood center on Halloween. We
got to run free in our darkened neighborhood. And in those days, we ate
whatever was in our bags and at the houses. If timed correctly, hot cider was
waiting for us at one house when we were certain our fingers and toes might
fall off because they must have been frozen solid. One neighbor had cookies,
and another allowed us to use the bathroom. Gone are the days where everyone
knew everyone in the neighborhood. Kids no longer do what we did.
Halloween is changing. I think it's
in flux and hasn't settled into its new shoes in this modern society. But it
will probably continue to change and keep up with the times. After all, it's no
longer a marauding band of drunks playing games in the neighborhood. Look how
far we have come since those days. It's a fairly new one in North America, but its roots go back over one thousand
years and its history is buried in lore. But as we become more global, we keep sharing our traditions with other countries. Halloween is now part of quite a few countries where it had never been celebrated.
Have a safe and wonderful holiday!
Trick or Treat!