26 October 2105
Trick or Treat?
Hold on, man. We don’t go anywhere with “scary,” “spooky,” “haunted,” or “forbidden” in the title. ~From Scooby-Doo
Hello again listeners. Following on from my recent post about the term ‘Fall’ (autumn) here we are again with a bit more linguistic debunking – with some customs and traditions thrown in for good measure. This time regarding Halloween.
It amuses, perplexes and irritates me in pretty much equal measure that so much is assumed to be an American import. But if you stop to think about it for just a moment – how do you suppose most words and customs and foods got there in the first place?
If a ‘thing’ wasn’t part of the culture of the indigenous population then whatever it might be obviously got there via the multitude of migrant groups that have pitched up on the shores of the Land of the Free – the Germans, Italians, the Dutch and, of course, we Brits. And so it is with Halloween.
Yes! That’s right. Far from being an American export to US – it’s actually an import from the British to America.
So, with Halloween fast approaching let’s take a look at some of the lore around this festival starting with the term itself.
All Hallows Eve
Halloween is more correctly written as ‘Hallowe’en – it being a contraction of ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ or All Saints Eve – a yearly celebration observed in many countries on the eve of All Hallows Day – the 1st November.
All Hallows day is a day dedicated to remembering the dead including saints (the Hallows), martyrs and all the faithful departed Christian believers.
It’s thought by some scholars that All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized festival influence by Celtic Harvest festivals, possibly with pagan roots – particularly the Gaelic Samhain.
When did Hallowe’en become popular in America?
Due to America’s strong Christian heritage, Halloween was not widely observed until the 20th century. And even then it was practiced only in small Irish Catholic settlements.
It wasn’t until the potato famine sent thousands of Irish migrating to America taking their customs with them that the festival took hold. So it can be argued that, to some degree, the modern Halloween is an Irish holiday with early origins in the Celtic winter festival.
Hit the road Jack
But among the Irish, who, as already mentioned, prompted the popularization of Halloween in America, the legend of “Irish Jack” or “stingy Jack” explains the jack-o’-lantern.
According to the legend, a stingy drunk named Jack tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree for a piece of the fruit, but then cut the sign of a cross into the trunk of the tree to prevent the devil from coming down. Jack then forced the devil to swear he would never come after Jack’s soul. The devil reluctantly agreed.
When Jack died he was turned away at the gates of heaven because of his drunkenness and life of selfishness. He was sent to the devil who also rejected him, keeping his promise.
Since Jack had no place to go, he was condemned to wander the earth. As he was leaving hell (he happened to be eating a turnip), the devil threw a live coal at him. He put the coal inside the turnip and has since then been roaming the earth with his “jack-o’-lantern” in search of a place to rest.
Turnips were eventually replaced with pumpkins since it was found to be much easier to symbolize the devil’s coal inside a pumpkin. And they make great pies. And soup. I’m not sure the same can be said of turnip.
Trick or treat!
You think that the trick or treat custom has come from America? Well sort of yes – but its origins are closer to home.
A long tradition of going from door to for food existed in Great Britain and Ireland in the form of ‘souling’ – where children and the poor sang and said prayers for the dead in return for cakes.
In Scotland an activity known as ‘guising’ – children disguised in costumes going from door to door for food and coins – also predates Trick or Treat.
Guising is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1865 where masqueraders in disguise and carrying lanterns made from scooped out turnips visited homes to be given cakes, fruit and money.
While going from door-to-door in disguise remains popular among the Scots and the Irish, the custom of saying ‘Trick or Treat’ is relatively new. It probably dates roughly from 1930s America.
It’s thought – though this is by no means certain – that it evolved as an antidote for the increasingly rowdy and costly Halloween pranks. The idea was that it provided a healthier activity for the young and gave them an incentive not to play tricks. It’s certainly become a brilliant commercial opportunity for sweet and chocolate manufacturers.
Getting out the dressing up box
The tradition of dressing in costumes and trick-or-treating may well go back to the practice of “mumming” and “guising,”
Early costumes were usually disguises, often woven out of straw, and sometimes people wore costumes to perform in plays or skits.
The practice may also be related to the medieval custom of “souling” in Britain and Ireland, when poor people would knock on doors on Hallowmas (Nov. 1), asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. No doubt Claire’s Accessories and any fancy dress shop you care to think of will be glad of the longevity of this tradition.
Finally, if you are so inclined, here’s a link to a rather long poem about Halloween by Robert Burns: http://www.milwburnsclub.org/works/rb0/rb075.htm
Happy Halloween, Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve!