The scary truth to the history of our Halloween

By KBJR News 1

October 31, 2013 Updated Oct 31, 2013 at 10:55 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - When it comes to the history of our holidays, perhaps Halloween most of all should come with a disclaimer: warning, based on oral history and tradition, open mind mandatory.

"It's been officiated through literature, and through story in the literate tradition, but its origins [are] in the oral," says UMD Instructor David Woodward, whose line of work covers everything from History and Sociology, to Anthropology and folklore. "So, there isn't that direct line between one tradition and the other. But, we can definitely see influences," he adds.

So, where do these influences come from?

For that answer, we turn to Neolithic agriculture, and the significance of the ancient Celtic harvest festival known as Samhain.

Woodward says Samhain was a period of luminosity, or flux between two stable times. Festivals like Samhain were used to mark the days to plant, or in this case: to harvest crops.

Popular belief also dictates that, on October 31st, the ancient Gaels believed the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was lifted, and spirits could roam freely to wreak havoc, spread sickness, and damage crops.

"It's widely believed that the ancient Gaels took steps to appease these mischievous spirits in order to preserve their crops, and have a bountiful harvest," says Duluth farmer John Beaton, who knows just how difficult modern-day farming can be. "Their entire survival depended on the harvest."

Those steps may have included wearing animal masks for protection...

"What I tell my children is that there's a time when the spirits walk among us, and they go door to door. By changing your appearance you could trick them into not taking your soul," says Woodward. "It doesn't have to be a scary costume—you just want to be something different."

...and lighting fires as a form of sympathetic magic. After all, ushering in the dead of winter is always nicer with a little light.

That aspect also sheds light on another Halloween mainstay: the Jack–o–lantern.

Old Irish folklore tells the story of Jack, a lazy thief of a farmer who was too sinful for Heaven, but through his cunning, tricked the Devil into never taking his soul to Hell.

Stuck on Earth in darkness, the Devil mockingly tossed Jack a Hellfire ember, which he placed in a carved turnip to use as a lantern.

"No one really knows when the transition from turnip to pumpkin took place," says Beaton. As a farmer, I'm really glad it did. Pumpkins are a lot easier to grow," he adds, laughing.

But we can't forget the role that Christianity—specifically, Catholocism—played in complimenting this day of the dead.

The very name "Halloween" is shorthand for the phrase "All Hallows' Eve," which refers to the church's observance of All Saints' Day on November 1st, and All Souls' Day on November 2nd.

In short, those days are set aside to offer prayers to souls either in Heaven, or making the transition—not unlike how pagans celebrating Samhain observed their spirits.

According to Father Eli Gieske, of Cathedral of our Lady of the Rosary, it was common in medieval times for the church to piggyback local customs.

"Here's the local customs," says Father Gieske, "what can we do to... use that energy, but kind of transform it a little bit to become more Christian?"

It's widely believed that the act of "souling," or going from door to door on November 1st to exchange prayers for the dead for food, shaped modern–day trick–or–treating.

But somewhere along the line, until as recently as the early 20th century, the night of October 31st became a night of anonymous, often violent, mischief—and Duluth was no exception.

"You had arson; people being beat in the street, some real violence going on," says Woodward, searching the archives of the Duluth Herald, "especially in Lakeside... according to the articles."

Mischief is still a part of Halloween, but commercialization of the holiday kind of took over in the 60's. Kids in costumes could be bought off by neighbors' candy, and October became a month of horror on TV.

In the end, Halloween is a lot like pasta. Sure, the ingredients are interesting enough. But add them all together, and it makes for one great holiday.

...but it doesn't answer the age–old question: is Halloween OK for Christians to celebrate?

"As a Christian, do you want to celebrate goblins and witches, and all this? Well, maybe not," says Father Gieske, "is it a bad thing for little kids to dress up as these things? Well, probably not."

... something to consider for the next 365 days.

In 2012, Americans spent $2.4 billion on candy, helping make Halloween one of the nation's most profitable holidays.

Billy Wagness
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