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The origins of Halloween

October 1, 2010

Halloween is a night unlike any other.

It's a night when legions of sugar-craving children dressed in disguise descend upon suburban neighborhoods in search of fun and chocolate-covered infusions of fructose.

It's a night when seemingly grounded adults also don costumes, imbibe in their favorite beverages and party the night away.

It seems like a uniquely American holiday and its expansion throughout the world via inclusion of American culture into foreign lands would back this claim.

But while Americans have taken Halloween traditions and ran with them since the early 20th century, it's celebration and custom did not originate within these shores.

You have to cast a glance across the pond to the British Isles to discover the origins of All Hallow's Eve and its eventual inclusion into American life from immigrants from distant shores.

In pre-Christian Europe, the calendar of the pagan Celtic peoples of the British Isles was divided into halves, the light half and the dark half.

The festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win), or summer's end, was celebrated on November 1.

In the Irish language, Oiche Shamhna, or Samhain Night, began on October 31 and was believed to be a night when the borders between the world of the living and the world of the dead were lax, allowing deceased spirits to walk amongst the living.

A large bonfire was lit in each community and villagers would wear costumes and masks in attempt to ward off evil spirits or appease them.

The Jack-o-Lantern also got its start here, although it originally was a carved turnip, not a pumpkin, lit with a candle. These were called Samhnag in the Gaelic languages. These were placed in windows also to ward off evil spirits.

In Scotland, children would go door to door in the act of guising (dressing in costume) and entertain with song and dance in exchange for coins or food.

The customs evolved throughout the centuries and when the mass emigration to the United States brought thousands upon thousands of Irish and Scottish people to America, they brought this custom with them.

Jack of the Lantern

There are more than a few variations to the tale, but there is an old Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack that placates the Jack-o-Lantern, or Halloween pumpkin, in use today.

Stingy Jack was an old drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone, even the devil. One day, Jack tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree. With the devil still in the tree, Jack placed crossed around the tree's trunk, effectively trapping the devil up the tree.

Jack only agreed to let the devil down if he promised never to take his soul.

When Jack died, he was refused entry into heaven for his sinful ways, but the devil would not take him into hell either.

Jack was trapped in the darkness between heaven and hell but the devil tossed him an ember from the flames of the underworld to light his way.

Jack placed the ember in a hollowed out turnip, one of his favorite foods. He forever walks the earth, lighting his way with the lit turnip, becoming Jack of the Lantern, or Jack-o-Lantern.

When this tradition was brought to the United States, it was found that using pumpkins, which were more readily available and easy to carve, was preferred over the turnips.

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