Thursday, Oct 28, 2021

History of Halloween

Candy! Jack-‘o-Lanterns! Ghosts! Underage mummers dressed up in goblin suits, and kooky witches riding outdated cleaning utensils! Speak the name “Halloween” to any red-blooded, twenty-first century American and these are probably some of the responses you’d hear! For most of us, nowadays, this ancient festival conjures nostalgic images of childhood trick-or-treating, lighthearted mischief, and chilling tales of the supernatural relished in the dark by the light of a roaring bonfire.

Not always has Halloween evoked such pastoral themes, though. Through almost two millennia, Halloween has evolved continuously, transmuting over time into various forms, not all of them so innocent…

We may never know precisely when or where it really began. The earliest observance to which we can  concretely trace our modern holiday is the Gaelic festival of Samhain (don’t ask me how to pronounce it). Falling on the evening between October 31 and November 1, Samhain marked the end of Harvest and the beginning of Winter. A day for taking stock of that year’s yield, and for remembering departed ancestors–Samhain was also a time of danger and mystery, when the Otherworld drew near, and inexplicable things occurred.

The name “Halloween” is actually a contraction of the Catholic holiday All Hallow’s Even (the “een” in Halloween is a contraction of the word even or evening). On November 1, Catholics would travel from door to door, begging for spiced, sweetened loaves of bread known as “soul cakes”. In return for these cakes, the receivers would offer up prayers for those souls who were condemned to suffer in Purgatory. This custom, known as “souling”, supposedly originated the modern practice of trick-or-treating.

Of all the evocative Halloween imagery in the world, the Jack-‘o-lantern is probably the most well known. The practice of carving out pumpkins or other vegetables has persisted since medieval times, when people would carve out turnips and place a lit candle within.

The legend of Jack of the Lantern tells the story of a man whose great wickedness attracted the notice of of the Devil himself. When the Evil one came in person to verify it, Jack somehow tricked him into becoming a coin, which Jack promptly placed in his pocket next to an image of the Cross. In the presence of this article, the Devil was unable to exercise his power, and in return for his freedom, promised never to claim Jack’s soul. Because of his wickedness, Jack was refused entrance to Heaven when he died–but as the Devil had promised never to take his soul, neither could he enter hell. As a result, Jack is forced to walk the earth for all eternity, with only a single, undying coal from hell to light his lantern.

The other day, I heard another rendition of the Jack-‘o-lantern tale that caught my attention. The narrator was explaining to a child how the lantern represents the human vessel, cleansed by Jesus Christ of all the sin and grime which infests the soul, with His eternal and holy light placed within to shine out in everything we do. Besides being an excellent analogy, I personally enjoy this tale much better than the former. To you who inspired this, thank you!

I hope you enjoyed this journey through the history of Halloween! I know I did. If any readers are surprised by the comparative darkness of this article, I must apologize. In my defense, however, I can only say that the history of Halloween is not a cheerful subject. I am extremely grateful that the fear and deception which surrounded the celebrations of Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve have for the most part disappeared from Halloween as we know it. Halloween is today mostly a lighthearted event, with lots of fun for young and old, yet just enough spookiness left to produce a good ghost story!

Trunk-or-TreatFor those of you who haven’t heard, the Valley is holding a Trunk-or-Treat tonight at 6:00 P.M. If you don’t know what a Trunk-or-Treat is, all participating Arbonites will be parked at the Arbon Elementary School, ready to hand out tasty treats from the trunks of their various vehicles. Chili will be served–bring your own bowls and utensils.