On Halloween, jack-o-lanterns light up dark paths and peek out of windows. So how did this tradition start?
Have you ever tried bobbing for apples? I have. Why do we put ourselves through such torture?
The origins of Halloween date back as early as the fifth century BC. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (sow-in) celebrated a successful harvest and the beginning of the long, cold, dark winter.
In preparation for the celebration, the Celts allowed their hearth fires to burn out while the last crops were being gathered. After the harvest was completed, Druid priests lit a communal bonfire in the center of the village, where the residents prayed, danced, and offered sacrifices to the Celtic deities. Then, villagers rekindled their hearth fires with embers from the sacred bonfire to protect their families from harm during the uncertain days and nights to follow.
The Celts believed the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead opened during Samhain. Ancestors and other spirits were expected to cross over and stir up trouble. To keep the fairies away from their homes, the Celts left offerings outside the village. To prevent the ghosts from kidnapping any living beings, the villagers dressed up in animal skins and heads, disguising themselves as monsters.
After the Romans took control of Britain, they merged the Samhain festival with two of their own. On the last day of October, the festival of Feralia commemorates the passing of the dead.
The festival of Pomona honors the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her sacred symbol was the apple. Part of the celebration was to grab hold of a dangling apple without using any hands, hence the origin of bobbing for apples.
Many years later, the early Christians discovered they couldn't stop pagan celebrations, so they replaced them with religious alternatives. To replace the Celtic/Roman celebration of the dead, November 1 was designated All Saints Day to honor Christian saints and martyrs. The night before turned into All Hallows Eve.
I'm sure you can figure out the rest of the tale from there.
I wonder if the first Celt who stuck an animal skull over his head ever realized he was starting a fad that'd still be practiced a couple of thousand years later. Of course, the celebration has changed over the centuries. I'm glad we've advanced from wearing animal hides and heads and no longer really believe that fairies and spirits come out to play on October 31. (They don't, do they?)
In any case, during its transition from a Druid ritual to a night of fun for the kids, Halloween has also picked up a hodge-podge of other traditions.
Trick or Treat came from the Irish peasants going from door-to-door begging for soul cakes. Failure to supply soul cakes resulted in fairies being set loose to play tricks and harass the unlucky victims.
According to Irish folklore, a character named Jack was a terrible person, always playing tricks and making trouble everywhere he went. He even tricked Satan into climbing a tree and trapped him there by carving a cross in the bark. Jack would not let the Devil out of the tree until he promised never to tempt Jack again for the rest of his life.
When Jack died, he was not allowed into Heaven because of his evil ways. He was not permitted in Hell either because of the nasty trick he played on Satan. Instead, Satan gave Jack a single ember to light his way through the eternal darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to make it glow longer. Jack now bore the name of "Jack of the Lantern."
When the Irish brought this tale to America in the 1800s, the turnip was replaced with a pumpkin. Then, somewhere along the line, a crude face was carved in the pumpkin creating the Jack-o-lantern we all know and love.
What I love most about Halloween are the ghost stories. Some of the tales, myths, and legends have survived for eons, like the story of Jack. Others are more modern and easier to believe. I mean, who would ever walk around carrying a turnip instead of a flashlight?
I like all kinds of spooky tales, except horror stories. They're just downright too scary for my taste.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Patchy and Calico’s Ghostly Adventure by Greta Burroughs
Corduroy's Best Halloween Ever! by Don Freeman and Lisa McCue
The Berenstain Bears Trick or Treat by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Trick or Treat, Little Critter by Mercer Meyer
Peter Rabbit and the Pumpkin Patch by Beatrix Potter
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Suess
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Cara Stevens
Clifford's Halloween by Norman Bridwell
For middle grade, teens, young adults, and adults
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Kiwi series by Vickie Johnstone
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe
How about you? What are your favorite Halloween stories?
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