The mystique of Halloween

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11303607851817.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A jack-o-lantern with a devilish grin seems to be amused by the legend of how he came to be.’);

By the first of October each year, various stores have their Halloween paraphernalia on display for the 31st of the month when this ancient “holiday” is celebrated. Pumpkins have been harvested and are in great demand, as are costumes, masks, and a variety of candy to be handed out when children come to the house for trick or treat.

Many individuals know neither the origin of the name Halloween nor how the occasion originated. The name Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve (Oct. 31), the day before All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, a day of observance in the Catholic Church. In the 5th century B.C. in ancient Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on Oct. 31 and the New Year began. The Druids believed that on that date, Saman, the lord of the dead, evoked hosts of evil spirits to mingle with the living. The living customarily lit bonfires on Oct. 31 to ward off the evil ones. The Celts later believed the last day of the year was the one day when the spirits of the ones who had died during the preceding year were permitted to visit their homes on Earth, and to embody themselves in a living being for the next year.

Of course, the living did not wish to have their bodies taken over by the dead. So, on Oct. 31, they would dress up in ghoulish costumes and parade around the village making noises and being destructive in an effort to discourage spirits looking to inhabit their bodies.

The Romans adopted these practices when they came to Ireland, but in the first century A.D. they transferred the ritual of Oct. 31 to some of their own traditions that occurred in October. One of these traditions was to honor Pomona, their goddess of fruit and trees. This may explain the common game of bobbing for apples at modern-day Halloween parties.

The rituals of Halloween were brought to America in the 1840s and 50s by Irish immigrants during the great potato famine in that country. Other ethnic groups in New England quickly adopted the festive occasion of Halloween, with the overturning of outhouses and removing of garden gates being favorite forms of pranks.

The custom of trick-or-treat did not originate with the Irish, but with other 9th century Europeans who observed the custom of “souling.” On All Souls’ Day, beggars would go from town to town asking for “soul cakes” made of bread and berries. In return for the cakes, the beggars promised to pray for the souls of individuals in limbo in the world beyond. At that time, it was common belief that the dead did not go directly to heaven, but to a state of limbo where prayers, even from strangers, would speed the soul’s transition to heaven.

One of the main items involved with the celebration of Halloween is the jack-o‘-lantern. The tradition of the jack-o‘-lantern comes to us from Irish folklore. According to the story, a man named Jack, a notorious village drunkard and ne’er-do well, was tempted by the devil. He then tricked Satan by encouraging him to climb into a tree. Jack then proceeded to carve a cross on the trunk of the tree, making it impossible for Old Nick to descend. Jack is then said to have made a deal with the devil if he promised not to tempt him again. He would remove the cross, and the Evil One could descend from the tree.

The yarn goes on that when Jack died, he was denied entrance into heaven because of his immorality in life, and the devil refused him entrance to hell because of the tree incident. The devil did take pity on Jack, and gave him a candle to light his way through the never-ending darkness of his afterlife. The devil obligingly placed the taper in a hollowed-out turnip so it would last for eternity.

The Irish, accordingly, used turnips for their jack-o‘-lanterns, but when they came to this country, they found pumpkins to be more abundant than turnips and allowed the candle to burn for a longer period of time.

Though some far-out cults have taken a mutated version of Halloween as their special feast day, the occasion originally had nothing to do with evil or Satanic activities. In fact, Halloween grew out of the celebration of the New Year by the ancestors of the Irish and from certain religious practices of other Europeans.

Let’s hope poor, old, ostracized Jack eventually found a pumpkin to replace the turnip as the carrier of his eternal flame.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2005, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!