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Cultural Halloween Traditions
10/2/2018 3:51:58 PM
Halloween Customs

For years, Halloween didn’t go much beyond the pursuit of candy. A pillowcase with holes for your arms, a mask over your face, a big brown paper sack to carry treats – what else did a kid need? As Halloween evolved in American culture, it brought a fascination with all things spooky; demons, goblins, vampires, and zombies. What is it about ghostly, ghastly, and gruesome things that continue to captivate our imaginations?

According to some sources, Halloween is more Irish than St. Patrick’s Day. Over 2,000 years ago, the Celts kicked off their new year on November 1 with the Samhain festival. This somehow became associated with Western Christian remembrances of the dead. All Hollow’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and Dia de los Muertos drew us into cemeteries. Once there, Halloween morphed into a macabre enchantment with the supernatural. 

Halloween evolved from diverse immigrant roots in America, incorporating religious practices dating back to medieval Europe. Mumming was practiced in Western European countries during church holidays such as Twelfth Night, Shrove Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve, and Christmas. Masked villagers, or mummers, participated in plays where they danced and begged for food or money. Both Catholic and Protestant English beggars practiced souling, begging the wealthy for "soul cakes,” in exchange for prayers that transported loved ones into heaven. In Scotland and Ireland, costumed children went guising from house-to-house, carrying lanterns and begging for treats. These traditions crossed the ocean where America’s Halloween made its initial appearances in the early 20th century. Massachusetts historian Ruth Edna Kelley wrote in her 1919 Book of Hallowe’en that Americans were "making this an occasion something like what it must have been in its best days overseas. All Halloween customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries.”

Costuming gained popularity in the United States during the 1930s as Halloween parties caught on. Some suggest we love to dress up at Halloween as creatures that cause us to tremble in fear because we enjoy poking fun at the devil and his netherworld inhabitants. When your doorbell rings, however, you’re just as likely to see scarecrows, princesses, and ninjas as monsters, skeletons, and witches. Fictional and cartoon characters are also prevalent, which may be as much a marketing success story as a Halloween tradition. Costume sales indicate that dressing up is fun for both adults and children. 

Fall Food Customs
It’s no coincidence apples, corn, and pumpkins are associated with Halloween, because they’re harvested in the fall. Abstinence from meat for religious observers of All Saint’s Day has made fruits, nuts, seeds, potato pancakes, and vegetables popular alternatives. Youngsters awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin expect Halloween treats like candied and caramel apples, popcorn balls, and cookies shaped like pumpkins, bats, and skulls. 

Pumpkin Carving 
The Jack-o-Lantern, perhaps the most enduring Halloween symbol, comes from an Irish Christian soul-selling tale. One dark night, a drunken rascal named Jack encountered the devil on his way home. Through trickery, Jack enticed the devil to shimmy up a tree upon which he quickly carved the Sign of the Cross. Trapped, Satan agreed to never lay claim to Jack’s soul. But when Jack died, his ne’er-do-well life of drunken debauchery kept him from entering the Pearly Gates. He begged the devil to allow him into hell; Satan tossed him a burning coal in response. Jack placed it into a carved-out pumpkin, which still burns as he roams the earth seeking eternal rest. 

Haunted Houses and other scary places
Goosebumps raise and guts wrench over legends of witches, wizards, sorcerers, and blood-sucking vampires. From Dracula to Harry Potter, supernatural tales spark our ghoulish imaginations.  Who hasn’t tested their "spirit” tiptoeing through old mansions, barns, or warehouses replete with creepy chambers and tortured tenants? It’s thrilling to be terrified, which explains why these haunted houses pop up during October. Cemetery tours and corn mazes also satisfy our hankering for being disoriented and frightened out of our wits.
Whether you trick-or-treat in costume or venture into haunted houses, we all scream at things that go bump in the night. Happy Halloween!
Posted by: Madelaine Brauner Landry | Submit comment | Tell a friend

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