Let's Reminisce: Halloween's history

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Having grown up in a rural area, I have no memories of trick or treating, so I’ll comment on Halloween from the standpoint of its history. The first question: How did a pagan harvest festival become so widely accepted and observed?

According to Wikipedia, most authorities believe “All Hallow’s Eve” ceremonies started in Ireland with the ancient Celts several thousand years ago. An agricultural society, the Celts believed that the bright half of the year ended around November 1, or about the time when the first frost occurred. The day is referred to in modern Gaelic as “Samhain” (pronounced "Sow-in" or alternatively "Sa-ven"), meaning: End of the Summer.

As October 31 is the last day of summer, the next day marked the beginning of winter, which the Celts often associated with death, and with the slaughter of livestock to provide meat for the coming winter.

The Celts' survival during the harsh winters depended on the prophecies of their priests and priestesses, especially an accurate prediction of how much food would be needed to sustain the people before the next harvest. Consultation with spirits would aid in making correct forecasts.

Other forms of divination developed over time. One Irish practice was serving the traditional Halloween cake, barmbrack, with various objects baked into the bread: a pea, a piece of cloth, a small coin and a ring.

Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to predict the fortune of the person concerned: the pea meant the person would not marry that year; the cloth or rag, s/he would have bad luck or be poor; the coin promised good fortune or wealth; and the ring meant marriage within the year.

Even apple bobbing was a fortune-telling game. Once an apple was caught, it would be peeled and the peelings tossed over the shoulder in the hope that the strips would fall into the shape of a letter; this would supposedly be the first initial of the participant's true love. According to another superstition, the longer the peel, the longer the peeler's life would be; some say that the first participant to get an apple would be the first to marry.

Among the Celts there was also concern about malicious spirits causing trouble. This was addressed by lighting bonfires and reinforcing boundaries. To dress as a spirit or otherworldly creature when venturing outdoors was to confuse the spirits, and this is where wearing costumes for Halloween comes from.

Halloween did not become a holiday in the U.S. until the mid 19th century. No doubt it was the transatlantic migration of nearly two million Irish following their Potato Famine (1845–1849) that finally brought us the holiday.

The commercializing of Halloween in the United States did not start until the 20th century, beginning with Halloween postcards, which were most popular between 1905 and 1915.

Mass-produced Halloween costumes did not appear in stores until the 1930s, and trick-or-treating became a fixture of the holiday only in the 1950s. Halloween pranks sometimes degenerated into malicious mischief,

such as outhouses being tipped over and cows being led into buildings (as happened at Austin College on more than one occasion).

The carving of jack-o’-lanterns began as a harvest festival tradition in Ireland with large turnips (rutabagas). In the U.S. and Canada pumpkins were substituted, being softer for carving and readily available. For decorating, Halloween is now this country’s second most popular holiday (after Christmas), with a variety of large inflatable decorations and animatronic window and door decorations featured. My neighborhood has its share of these.

Black (cats) and orange (pumpkins) are the traditional colors of Halloween, and the imagery surrounding it incorporates a century of work from American filmmakers. Its popularity undoubtedly feeds on our attraction to the dark and mysterious, including magic and monsters, such as ghosts, witches, vampires, bats, owls, crows, haunted houses, aliens, spiders, goblins, mummies, skeletons, and demons.

Particularly in America, symbolism is inspired by classic horror films, which contain fictional figures like Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the Mummy. More modern horror antagonists like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, the Jigsaw Killer and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer have also become associated with the holiday.

Halloween has certainly come a long way from its origins as a pagan Irish religious festival in the distant past.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.