All Hallows’, All Saints’, and the tale of jack-o-lanterns and boogey men

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“I don’t celebrate Halloween.” 

Haunted face

It’s a comment I’ve heard a few people make, and one that confuses me considering the origins of the holiday.  Celebrate, observe, participate, avoidance.  Word choice has a way of inflecting meaning and tone, often with intention.  I’ve always been fascinated by how people think, their motives, and the underpinnings of opinion, including those I disagree with – and perhaps even more-so when I disagree……  It is my humble opinion that anything which challenges us to think, to justify our beliefs, to dig just a little deeper into the psychi of those around us, is always a worthwhile pursuit.

Growing up in a household which typically avoided strong religious overtones, I enjoyed participating in Halloween without ever knowing the meaning or purpose of the holiday.  I simply enjoyed creating a cool costume – or what I thought was cool, anyway – and being with friends and cousins, roaming the darkened streets trying to maximize my take of the candy bounty.  It was simple being a kid.

A lack of awareness is one of the luxuries of childhood that all too soon gets lost in the complexities and confusion of adulthood.  Unfortunately and all too often, a childhood absence of awareness is replaced in adulthood by ignorance and bias, where clarity and fact are often sacrificed for the purpose of protecting long-standing and emotionally motivated opinions.  And let’s never doubt that we are emotion-driven creatures, which is a marvelous yet frightening dynamic of human nature.

Standing at the threshold of adulthood was a confusing time for me, and as I began entering into the realm of ‘grown-ups’ it was a long process of stumbling more than it was a giant step.  And perhaps this was advantageous, and typical of what most of us experience.  Life is necessarily a journey of discovery, where truth and wisdom are best realized and not simply explained.  Yet as adults we often attempt to fight or avoid altogether the innate curiosity that makes us human, and which provides the wisdom and experience to further enrich our lives.

It seems common practice in our society today to unconditionally accept hearsay, and stand behind symbolic words and gestures without inquiring about the presence of motive, intent, or existence of false premise.  None of us know the entire truth or could ever hope to, regardless of our efforts to acquire it, but I am puzzled as to why some appear so willing to hobble through life at the discretion of others.  But then perhaps this is one of the dynamics of life that should remain unexplained, its perplexing nature existing for the sole purpose of providing inquisitive minds reason to ponder.  Still, it sometimes pisses me off.  ; )

So it is in this world of ours that the meaning and purpose of Halloween has evolved, correlating with the evolution of logic, reason, philosophy, rhetoric and religion.  Perhaps Halloween is a reflection of just how complex and fascinating our world and its history truly are.

Performing some easy, cursory research on the internet quickly demonstrates how evidence, legend, tradition and even bias all influence how we perceive Halloween – or anything else, for that matter.  It’s very easy to be skeptical of history and its sources, but there are commonly held beliefs, even for Halloween.  And unlike much of the history we are familiar with, the origins of Halloween predate written record and rely on what Historians call “oral tradition.”  Most of the shared information I found among several web-sites is included in the link for Wikipedia Halloween.

Some commonly held beliefs are:

  • The origins of Halloween can be traced to ancient Celtic civilization, and it began as a festival, celebratring the end of Summer’s harvest.
  • Some scholars believe the festival included a celebration of the dead, and that on this day the souls of those deceased could revisit the earth.
  • This festival/celebration was held on or about October 31st or November 1st.
  • The wearing of costumes is believed to have originated as a means to protect those still living on earth from harmful spirits that visited the earth with the souls of the dead.
  • The original jack-o-lantern is thought to have been used as a method of providing lighting during these festivals.
  • Faces were carved into jack-o-lanterns so that the escaping candle-light could provide luminance and frighten away harmful spirits.
  • The first jack-o-lanterns were probably turnips.  Pumpkins would come much later when the holiday came to America.

Christianity is also believed to have influenced Halloween, marked by the holy days of All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd.  All Saints day is also known as “All Hallows”, or “Hallowmas”.  These two days are for honoring the saints and praying for those who have recently died, but have not yet made the passage into heaven.

Some interesting pieces of history – at least I think so….:

  • All Saints Day was originally celebrated on May 13th, but was changed to November 1st by Pope Gregory IV.  It is believed this was due to Celtic or Germanic influence.
  • By the late 12th century it was tradition to bake “soul cakes” and share them as a method for crystening souls.  These were then handed out to the poor who walked door-to-door, collecting cakes.
  • The tradition of handing out cakes is believed to be the origins of trick-or-treating.
  • All Saints Day/All Hallows Eve was the last day, before departing earth, that the souls of the dead could seek vengence against those still living.
  • Costumes were worn by the living on All Saints/All Hallows to disguise and protect them from the souls seeking vengence.
  • Jack-o-lanterns were carved and lit by candle to depict the souls still in purgatory.

From this point forward we pretty much enter the modern era of Halloween, where by the early 20th century it is celebrated throughout the U.S. and by people from all backgrounds.  Of course by this time the origins of Halloween have started to be forgotten – but not entirely lost to history.  And as the holiday became more mainstream and accepted by the masses, its purpose as a cultural tradition was steadily diluted into a more mainstream, commercialized event.  And that brings us to today.

I must admit that when I originally researched the origins of Halloween many years ago I was struck by how it has evolved throughout history.  It has changed to reflect the needs and desires of those who, for religious or spiritual reasons, participated in its festivals and celebrations to honor those who have gone before.  Evidence indicates that its origins were rooted in what is considered Pagan cultural and society.  It would be accepted into Christian culture and society at a later date, and to essentially fulfill the same purpose; honor those who have passed before.

One of the fascinations for me when researching history is the common thread of human nature, which suggests that despite the diversities and singular character of every unique culture and society, there are forever similarities that each and all of us share.  I’ve heard many times that what we all share far exceeds how we differ.  My experiences certainly underscore this as well.  The difficulty for me is attempting to understand the need for so many to focus on our differences, when doing so necessitates looking past a wall of similarities.  Perhaps that’s another dynamic I need to study.

~ Castaway

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