Monday, 31 October 2016

Halloween History and Misconceptions..

Happy Halloween! That's me on the right, looking a little under the weather a couple of years ago;

Robyn has been kind enough to write a guest article about this spooky time.

                   Halloween history and misconceptions

                                  By Robyn G. May.

I love the fall and to me the pinnacle of fall is Halloween. Every year the weeks leading up to October 31st I watch scary movies (which I love anyway). I love decorating for it, getting treats for the trick or treaters and dressing up. I don’t get to dress up here but I have a real pair of custom fitted fangs at home. I just love Halloween! I have been watching documentaries on the origin of Halloween for years and learn more every year so I thought I’d let you all know about my history of Halloween and the actual history of the spooky holiday itself.

Halloween was so much fun growing up. My uncle made most of my Halloween costumes, he liked sewing and thought it was fun to do. I had the best costumes ever; a Witch, a Bride, Snow White and Cleopatra. The first Halloween I can remember we went to the Philadelphia zoo on Halloween night and got apple cider. The zoo put on a party for kids but I think we got there too late to enjoy the festivities. Another year (or a few it seemed like) I went to a party thrown by (or for rather) my oldest friend at our local branch of the library. We played games, ate treats and watched Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. A few years later I started going to Halloween parties thrown by my church. My mother always took me to parties because I wasn’t allowed to go trick or treating. From what I can remember it was because there were cases of children being killed or injured by poisoned candy or tainted fruit they were given on Halloween. So to be on the safe side my mom’s friends threw parties instead of taking us out trick or treating.

The funny thing that never really happened. There were a few cases of children being poisoned supposedly by Halloween candy but it turned out the children were poisoned by their own parents or parents of their friends. Other cases where parents reported their children died after eating Halloween candy it was found the children actually died from other causes including one boy who found a family member’s heroine stash and took it and one girl who died from a staphylococcus infection. And the only confirmed incidents of razor blades in apples took place after the reports came out on the news.

I still love Halloween. Of course I don’t run in circles with people that have Halloween parties for adults, although I’d love to go to one. I don’t remember the last time I really wore a costume for Halloween before the party Neil and I went to two years ago. And funny enough all the friends that I grew up going to Halloween parties with have decided that they don’t want to celebrate Halloween anymore because they think it’s the devil’s holiday. Even churches when I was young threw Halloween parties but now they all throw harvest festivals if they do anything at all. No one wants to mention Halloween anymore.

Halloween has nothing to do with the devil. Halloween comes from a Celtic holiday called Samhain [sah-win]. Samhain which means summer’s end, was celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st. The Celts believed (and still do) that the boundary between our world and the other is at its thinnest, allowing spirits and the dead could cross over and walk the earth on that night. As a way of appeasing them (and keeping them away from their homes) they left offerings of food and drink out for them on the outskirts of their villages. People also dressed up in costumes to hide from them, and went door to door sometimes reciting stories in return for food. Sound familiar? But this was not satanic, yes Celts do not worship the God or Gods that we know now but their Gods and Goddesses are not Satan or Satanic. The deities they worship have more to do with natural things like; water, lightening, trees, and wells. And just as the end of summer is harvest time now, it was then, and Samhain was a harvest festival where they thanked their deities for life and their harvest.
But what about the name, where did we get Halloween from? When Christianity moved throughout the British Isles they could not win over Celts or as they called them Pagans, so they adopted some of their holidays in order to win people over. They did the same with Christmas. The Catholic Church made November 1st All Saints or Hallows Day and October 31st became All Hallows Evening (or Eve) and eventually Halloween.

For the past few years Neil and I have been making Jack-O’-Lanterns. I guess I’m a bit homesick and I in some way I want to feel as though I’m home. When I grew up I only remember making a Jack-O’-Lantern once. We take a pumpkin hollow it out and carve a face into it. It can be a scary face or a silly face. People even carve shapes and characters associated with Halloween (bats, ghosts, witches, etc) into the pumpkins. Once it’s carved and hallowed you put a candle in the middle and you have the ultimate scary face.

The tradition of Jack-O’-lanterns comes from Ireland and Scotland. When Irish and Scottish immigrants came to the US they brought the tradition with them. Originally it was turnips that were hallowed out and carved. Once the Irish and Scots saw pumpkins they moved the tradition to pumpkins instead of turnips.

 Supposedly there really was a Jack-O’-Lantern. According to legend Stingy Jack was made a deal with the devil after playing several tricks on him. When Jack died the devil would not let him into hell, he sent Jack out into the darkness of night with nothing but a burning coal to light his way. Jack carved out a turnip and has roamed the Earth ever since. In Ireland and Scotland people used to carve a turnip or potato with a scary face and place it in windows or near door to keep Jack and other evil spirits away.

Although Halloween is all about being scared the night before Halloween was very scary when I was young. The night of October 30th was known as Mischief Night. For several years of my childhood mischief night was no fun at all. I remember one year I had choir rehearsal and my mother couldn’t stay so she asked two teenage friends of mine (who were a few years older than me) to walk me to my aunt’s house, which was only down the street. They walked me down the street and a few doors away from the house they told me to run into the house. There was a group of teenagers chasing us, my friends got egged. For years there was terror in the streets. Windows broken, properties damaged by eggs and toilet paper but the biggest problem by far was arson. For two or three years running there were warehouses, homes and other buildings burnt down on Mischief night so the city of Philadelphia (and Camden where it was even worse) put curfews in place. A few years later the arson attacks stopped. We were no longer afraid to go out the night before Halloween.

In America Mischief night started in the early 1900’s with young and adolescent boys playing harmless tricks like smashing pumpkins, but it soon turned into big trouble like arson. It escalated during the great depression with 1933 being the worst, so it is considered by some to be a reflection of the dismal times. The night is known by several names across the country; mischief night is popular in Mid-Atlantic States, but other parts of the country call it devil’s night, cabbage night and gate night. Although it slowed down and in some places stopped altogether, by the 1990s it had made a comeback. Mischief Night 1990 was bad but Mischief night 1991 set the record. Camden had 160 reports of fires to buildings, houses and grass/trash. After that year Philly and Camden put curfews in place and had police patrolling neighborhoods; the vandalism and arson slowed down.

Some other acts committed on mischief night include; covering houses and trees in toilet paper, flour bombing and egging cars, people and homes, breaking windows, leaving animal excrement on doorsteps, removing the gates from farm pen letting the animals loose, moving the steps from in from of homes (people would fall and get hurt when they left in the morning), putting farm equipment and buggies on rooftops and on hay stacks, putting bars of soap in trolley tracks resulting in trolleys being derailed. After 1933 towns, schools and police departments started throwing parties to occupy children’s time around Halloween to keep them out of trouble. This is also when commercial costumes and decorations became widely available.

I hope you enjoyed the history and my history of Halloween. From what I hear Halloween isn’t as popular here as it is at home, but hopefully more people will embrace it and begin to celebrate it. Halloween is a lot of fun for everyone. Hopefully we’ll get some trick or treaters today otherwise we’ll have to eat the candy ourselves!

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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