Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Few Interesting Facts About Halloween

Most of the following facts come from The Book of Halloween, by Edna Kelley, A.M.,1 published in 1919. I mentioned this book in a previous post. At the time, I had not read it. Now I have, and hoo-boy, is it boring! However, it does contain a few interesting facts. For instance:

The Origin of Halloween

Halloween was invented by the Celts, an ancient people who inhabited what is now Ireland, Great Britain, and part of France. Of course, the Celts did not call it "Halloween." They called it "Samhain," a word which nobody can agree on the pronunciation of, except that it is definitely not pronounced "Samhain."

When the Romans invaded the Celts, they did not approve of their religion.2 They unsuccessfully tried to eliminate it by killing off the Celtic priests, who were known as "Druids."3 After the Romans became Christians, they again tried to wipe out the Celts' religion—this time more successfully—by repurposing their pagan holidays as Christian ones.4 Samhain became "All Saints' Day" or "All Hallows' Day," and the night before became "All Hallows' Eve." Later, this was shortened to "Hallowe'en." Still later, the apostrophe was dropped.5

Halloween Customs

There are many Halloween customs involving food, most of them having to do with foretelling whether or not one will find a mate. For example, if a young man successfully sticks his head in a tub of water and grabs an apple with his teeth, "his love affair will end happily."6 If he finds the ring, coin, or thimble concealed in his mashed potatoes or cake, he "will be married in a year, or if he is already married, will be lucky."7 Burning nuts can also be used to prognosticate one's love life, but it's a complicated process, and I won't go into it here.

Speaking of burning nuts, there are also many Halloween customs involving a dangerous proximity to fire. Bonfires were common, and of course candles were stuck inside gourds and turnips to make jack-o-lanterns. Candles were also used in party games: "In an old book there is a picture of a youth sitting on a stick placed across two stools. On one end of the stick is a lighted candle from which he is trying to light another in his hand." Imagine the excitement!8


I'm not sure the term "trick-or-treating" was in use when Edna Kelley wrote The Book of Halloween. She never mentions it, although she does mention tricks: "It is a night of ghostly and merry revelry. Mischievous spirits choose it for carrying off gates and other objects, and hiding them or putting them out of reach."

Adorable Pumpkin-Headed Mutants Steal a Gate

There was also something called "souling," which involved going door-to-door, begging for treats called "soul cakes:"
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.

A Robert Burns Hallowe'en

According to Ruth Edna Kelley, writing in 1919, "The taste in Hallowe'en festivities now is to study old traditions, and hold a Scotch party, using Burns' poem Hallowe'en as a guide..." I looked up Robert Burns' poem. Here are the last two verses:
In order, on the clean hearth-stane,
The luggies10 three are ranged,
And every time great care is ta'en',
To see them duly changed:
Auld Uncle John, wha wedlock joys
Sin' Mar's year did desire,
Because he gat the toom dish thrice,
He heaved them on the fire
In wrath that night.

Wi' merry sangs, and friendly cracks,
I wat they didna weary;
And unco tales, and funny jokes,
Their sports were cheap and cheery;
Till butter'd so'ns, wi' fragrant lunt,
Set a' their gabs a-steerin';
Syne, wi' a social glass o' strunt,
They parted aff careerin'
Fu' blythe that night.

There are twenty-eight verses in all. If, as Edna suggests, you wish to use it as a guide to host your own "Scotch party," you can find the whole poem here.

If you do, please let me know how it turns out—particularly with regard to the luggies.


1 "A.M.," of course, stands for "ante meridiem," which is Latin for "before midday." Apparently Edna was a morning person.

2 The Celts were "polytheists," which means they worshipped many gods. Of course, at that time the Romans were also polytheists, but the gods they worshipped were clearly superior because they were Roman.

3 It is believed that some Druids survived by using a form of magic known as the "Celtic Mind Trick" to make the Romans believe that "These are not the Druids you are looking for."

4 This tactic was also successfully employed with "Yule," which became Christmas, and "Chocolate Bunny and Egg Basket Day," which became Easter.

5 Because people are basically lazy.

6 If he is unsuccessful, his life may end unhappily—by drowning.

7 Or, more likely, will require the services of a dentist.

8 Especially when a guest set himself on fire.

9 Which, over the centuries, somehow devolved into:
Trick or treat, smell my feet!
Give me something good to eat!
If you don't, I don't care!
I'll pull down your underwear!

10 I know it sounds like something disgusting, but "luggies" are actually bowls, "one with clean, one with dirty water, and one left empty. The person wishing to know his fate in marriage was blindfolded, turned about thrice, and put down his left hand. If he dipped it into the clean water, he would marry a maiden; if into the dirty, a widow; if into the empty dish, not at all." (Actually, that is pretty disgusting—not to mention insulting to widows.)

No comments:

Post a Comment