A Mysterious Past
As the leaves start to change colors, temperatures start to drop, and scary movies are released, one of America’s favorite holidays inches closer. Halloween is a time to get creative with your costume, party with your fellow ghouls, eat too much candy, and be scared out of your mind. Our idea of Halloween as we know it has only been in its current form for roughly 80 years. Halloween’s origins and traditions are hazy, so here’s the current theory.
Halloween got its start some 2,000 years ago as the Celtic celebration Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Celebrated on November 1, the Celtic people would build large bonfires to ward off evil spirits and mark the end of the harvest season. The night before Samhain, it was believed the dead would return as ghosts. To appease the spirits, villagers would leave food and wine on their doorsteps. If they ever had to leave the house, villagers would wear masks to “blend in” with the wandering ghosts.
As Christianity became more popular, Pope Gregory III created the holiday All Saints’ Day or All Hallows, celebrated November 1. The idea was to celebrate past saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church, while also competing with the pagan tradition. The night before All Hallows was called Hallows’ Eve, thus, Halloween!
The current practice of trick-or-treating is believed to come from two traditions in Medieval Europe, souling and guising. Souling took place on All Souls’ Day (November 2), in which the poor would pray to people’s dead relatives in exchange for pastries called soul cakes. All Souls’ Day was also marked with bonfires and masquerades, very similar to the Samhain traditions. Guising was a popular Irish and Scottish tradition in which children would dress in costumes and perform tricks, i.e., tell jokes, sing a song, recite a poem, in exchange for treats. It’s also believed that Guy Fawkes Night, a commemoration to the foiled Gunpowder Plot in the 1600s, played a role in modern trick-or-treating. On November 5, children would don masks and ask for a, “penny for the Guy.”
Since the prudish Puritans in colonial America had no interest in continuing any of these pagan and Catholic traditions, Americans were left out until the Great Potato Famine in the 1840s. The Famine caused many Irish to immigrate to the U.S., thus introducing guising, souling and Guy Fawkes Night to the masses.
At first, trick-or-treating in America began as pranks, causing thousands of dollars in damage to cities. Unsurprisingly, the Great Depression in the 1920s made the pranking even worse. It wasn’t until the country rallied together in the ‘30s to stop the vandalizing that modern trick-or-treating was born. After a brief hiatus due to World War II sugar rationing, trick-or-treating returned to become a popular tradition for post-war baby boomers. The family-friendly tradition was even depicted in 1951 by the comic strip “Peanuts” and then in 1952 by a Disney cartoon. Today, Halloween is estimated to generate $6 billion in revenue, making it the second largest commercial holiday. That’s a lot of sweets!
The gourd through which all creativity is proudly displayed on Halloween comes from an old Irish tale about a man named Stingy Jack, a wily fellow who tricked the devil into promising him to not send him to Hell when he died. Unfortunately, once Jack died God decided he didn’t want such an unlikeable character to have a place in Heaven. Because the devil promised not to take Jack, he was left to roam the Earth with nothing but a lit coal from Hell to light his way. Jack placed the coal in a carved-out turnip to act as a lantern, and still wanders to this day.
The Irish would carve turnips, potatoes, or beets to make their jack-o’-lanterns, but once they immigrated to America, they discovered the native pumpkin made for a much better replacement. Today, there are about 30 different varieties of pumpkins, with Illinois being the largest grower. All your carving needs will probably be best met with a Howden pumpkin, which was specifically designed in the ‘60s to be used for warding away spirits.
Witches have had a rather unfortunate past. Between the Salem witch trials, the witch hunts of the medieval times, and the death of the Wicked Witch of the West, their fear and dislike by the church has been well documented. But where did those pointy hats, brooms, and fear of black cats come from? In Medieval Europe, it was believed that witches would turn into black cats at night. The pointy hats were once a sartorial style, exclusive to the upper class. Later, these hats made their way to the lower class, and it was the poor that were mostly accused of being witches. Finally, the broom was used as a pagan tool for crop fertility and it was believed witches would hide their wands in them. To fly the broom, a witch would need to rub a special ointment on the handle.
Completely Subjective List: Best of Pop Culture Costumes
2010: Neytiri & Jake (“Avatar”), Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, Snookie, LMFAO
2011: Steve Jobs, Harry Potter, Nicki Minaj, Charlie Sheen, Bridesmaids characters, the Black Swan
2012: Psy, “Duck Dynasty” Clan, “The Avengers,” Honey Boo Boo, Katniss & Peeta (“Hunger Games”)
2013: Miley Cyrus & Robin Thicke, Kate Middleton & baby George, “Orange is the New Black” characters, Walt & Jesse (“Breaking Bad”)
2014: Kimye, Beyonce & Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Game of Thrones,” “Frozen,” Frank & Claire (“House of Cards”)
Where to Have a Hauntingly Good Time in North Florida on Oct. 31
- Amelia Island Museum of History Ghost Tour
- Creepy Pub Crawl in St. Augustine
- The Dungeons Scream Park
- Haunt Nights at Adventure Landing
- Ghost Tours in St. Augustine
- Haunted Theatre No. 5: At an AMC Regency showing of “The Passion of the Christ,” a man dropped dead of a heart attack. He now haunts and terrorizes guests in house No. 5.
Information courtesy of: www.history.com/topics/halloween