Friday, October 31, 2014

The History of Halloween - A History Goes Bump Special

Halloween has a rich history that dates back to the 16th century.  Many customs and rituals continue to this day, but very few people know the origins of some of the rituals many of us have observed on this day be it bobbing for apples to carving pumpkins to going door to door trick-or-treating.  Many of us have wonderful memories from when we were children and for us here at History Goes Bump, it continues to be one of our favorite holidays!

Much of the Halloween customs come from the time of harvest.  Before we had modern marvels like calendars and clocks, people used the moon, the sun and the seasons to keep track of the passing of time.  The name for this time of year became Samhain, meaning "end of summer."  Bonfires were built as a part of the festivals.  This is also the time when the Gaelics developed the belief that continues to this day that the veil between our world and the afterlife is thin and communication between those worlds is more accessible.  Candles were placed in windows to light the way for spirits, particularly lost family members.  Not all spirits were good and people developed a system for scaring the spirits away, which have become our modern day Jack 'o Lanterns.  Centuries ago, any kind of gourd would be hallowed out and used and sometimes even turnips were used.  People would carry smaller gourds with them as they traveled. 

There is some folklore that goes along with the carving of pumpkins about how the name Jack got involved.  The website Halloween History has some variations: 
"In folklore, an old Irish folk tale tells of Jack, a lazy yet shrewd farmer who uses a cross to trap the Devil. One story says that Jack tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree, and once he was up there Jack quickly placed crosses around the trunk or carved a cross into the bark, so that the Devil couldn't get down. Another myth says that Jack put a key in the Devil's pocket while he was suspended upside-down;

Another version of the myth says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen, when he met the Devil, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting the Devil with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told the Devil to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (the Devil could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin/Devil disappeared, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it. The Devil agreed to this plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack's wallet, only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also picked up in the village. Jack had closed the wallet tight, and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers; and so he was trapped. In both myths, Jack only lets the Devil go when he agrees never to take his soul. After a while the thief died, as all living things do. Of course, his life had been too sinful for Jack to go to heaven; however, the Devil had promised not to take his soul, and so he was barred from Hell as well. Jack now had nowhere to go. He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and the Devil mockingly tossed him an ember that would never burn out from the flames of hell. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which was his favorite food), put the ember inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He became known as "Jack of the Lantern", or Jack-o'-Lantern."
Some people did not feel fully protected by their lanterns, so they would wear masks and costumes to conceal their identity and fool the spirits or at least attempt to appease them.  Modern celebrations include costumes as well and children wear them as they go door to door trick or treating, which when taken for its full meaning indicates that if someone does not cough up some sweet treats, a trick will be played on them.  While some people believe that Halloween is completely Satanic in nature, it is full of Christian history and tradition.  Pope Gregory III chose November 1st as All Saints Day in the 8th century and the night before became known as All Hallows Eve. The tradition of going door to door for goodies has been a part of All Saints Day since medieval times.  Poor people would go door to door asking for food and offering to pray for the lost souls of family members.  This was started in Ireland and Britain and was originally called "souling" and the food people were given was called soul cakes.  In France, Christian family members would pray at the graves of loved ones and leave them bowls of milk.  In Italy, families would leave a meal out for the deceased before they headed off to church services.

Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their traditions with them to America.  There is little evidence that Halloween customs, particularly trick or treating were practiced in America before 1900.  But after that time, newspapers began to report the practice and it steadily grew in popularity.  Unfortunately, the practice has lost some of its appeal and people have noticed fewer trick or treaters at their homes all because of a hoax we all grew up with as kids.  News reports were always warning parents to check their kids treats for poison and needles and hospitals opened up their X-ray machines to check the candy - which probably did more poisoning of the candy than any human ever did.  Parents would not let us eat any candy until they checked it and we all lived in that fear.  And it was for nothing, although the urban legend continues to this day.  Snopes has the details here.  Trunk or treating has become quite popular in these most recent years and usually occur in church or school parking lots.  Children go from car to car to get their treats and people generally decorate their trunks in a variety of themes.

Halloween in America has continued to expand and incorporated far too many symbols to count from bats to vampires to witches and more.  Haunted experiences and theme parks are lucrative enterprises and most cities feature the very thing we love here at History Goes Bump:  ghost tours and walks.

So what are some of your memories of Halloween or favorite traditions?  Let us know in the comments below!


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