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History of Halloween

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POSTED: October 20, 2011 4:00 p.m.

The weather is turning cooler, baseball’s post-season is in full swing and Halloween is upon us. Roadside stands are piled high with pumpkins, and the stores are stocked with ghosts, goblins and bags of Halloween candy (or sweets as we call them in England).
The origins of Halloween are complicated and go back a couple of thousand years to the ancient Celtic festival of “Samhain.” The Celts lived predominantly in Ireland, and they celebrated their new year on Nov. 1, which marked the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.
The Celts believed that on the night of Oct. 31, just before their new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
Around the ninth century, the Catholic Church designated Nov. 1 as All Saints Day to honor all saints and martyrs and Nov. 2 as All Soul’s Day to honor the dead. The All Saints Day celebration was also called “All-Hallows,” and the night before was “All-Hallows Eve” – and eventually Halloween.
However, 17th-century English Protestants were very keen to distance themselves from the Halloween festival, which was closely associated with the Catholic Church, so they established an alternative celebration: Gunpowder Treason Day, also known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night, It originates from the Gunpowder plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state.
Anyway, back in 1605, one Mr. Guy Fawkes was at the center of this evil plot, and he was caught guarding a cache of explosives placed beneath the English parliament buildings, which he and his co-conspirators were planning to blow up.
To celebrate the timely discovery of these plans and the survival of the King, Nov. 5 was declared Gunpowder Treason Day - an annual English holiday to commemorate “God’s great mercy in delivering this kingdom from the hellish plots of papists,” as they saw it.
Bonfires were lit to celebrate, and over time people started to make straw men and dress them up to represent the figure of Guy Fawkes. These effigies were then put on the bonfires to burn – a rather macabre sight for young children – it certainly scared me as a child.
In the early days of American history, the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night was imported by the English settlers, and Halloween by the Irish, who also displayed vegetables – originally turnips – with carved scary faces to ward off evil spirits. Trick-or-treating is believed to have originated from early All Souls Day parades in Europe when the poor would beg for food in return for prayers for the dead.
Today, all of these various historical traditions blend together to become the world’s very American version of Halloween – and it has become huge. Did you know a quarter of all candy sold annually in this country is purchased for Halloween? And Americans spend an estimated $6 billion every year on Halloween, making it the second largest commercial holiday behind Christmas?
As always, I am happy to embrace the traditions of this wonderful country, but I will draw the line at dressing up my dogs in Halloween costumes. My beautiful granddaughter, however, is a different story. At a year old, she will be a little young to understand what is going on, but I love this quote from famous columnist and humorist, Erma Bombeck: “A grandmother pretends she doesn’t know who you are on Halloween.”
Enjoy your Halloween fun and God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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