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 Underage mummers dressed up in goblin suits, and kooky witches riding outdated cleaning utensils!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!
Webster’s dictionary defines “microcosm” as either of two things:
- a small community, or
- something which represents in miniature a larger whole.
Arbon Valley is both: a small town that is the very epitome and definition of community living, where qualities such as neighborliness, goodwill and a fine sense of humor are valued high. My family and I have lived just over a year in Arbon, and everywhere we are confronted with evidence of the incredible community spirit which permeates the soil of this unique valley. From day one, when several of our neighbors appeared to help install our belongings in the house, to the recent letter-drive, instigated to combat the powers that be who have threatened to dissolve our post office; constantly, we have seen these evidences compounded before our eyes — fulfilling themselves in the fabric of our lives! Yes, this is one microcosm I am proud to be a part of!
Sometimes I stand in the yard before my house, and simply let my gaze wander o’er the breathtaking panorama of our valley; I ponder the richness of its terrain, the rarity of its people. And I wonder . . .
What would the world be like, if everyone followed this example? If everyman loved his neighbor, even as himself — in company facing the challenges which the raw forces of nature place in our path, would there be any real problems? Is Arbon Valley the epitome of a near perfect world?
The rest of the world groans beneath the burdens of war, poverty, economic recession, and one thousand and one myriad tribulations; here, we live in peace and (if any are like me) quiet contentment — helping ourselves and each other.
T. H. White, referencing something quite different, yet not altogether dissimilar, once wrote:
“Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.”
Say what you like — I think it’s very appropriate. In Arbon Valley I can relax, shake off the cares of this modern world, and enjoy life for what it really is: simple at heart, intrinsically beautiful, and eminently satisfying!
Whatever Arbon Valley may be — the epitome of perfection, a kickback to simpler times, or just a great place to live — to me it will always be home; now, and forever. And though I may travel a world away, and this day be engulfed in an eon of history, I shall always cherish in my memory the times I have spent here in this remarkable valley, this little world — this Microcosmos.