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  • by Chris Stewart

The Meaning of Halloween - The unusual story of demons, Druids and a man named Jack

Alfred Hitchcock knew the secret to human nature and made a fortune from it: Every family has a closet, and every closet has a skeleton or two.

Tweed suits, bowler hats and stiff upper lips aside, the British people - like civilizations from the beginning of time - have periodically lapsed into behavior they'd just a s soon forget. After all, the contemporary image of James Bond doesn't mesh well with ancestors who cavorted about bonfires at night, carried lighted candles around inside vegetable rinds, thought cats were human spirits reincarnated, and predicted the future by dipping their fingers into dirty water. Yet these bizarre practices were all carried out as part of the ritual celebration of Halloween, a celebration symbolized today by grinning pumpkins. Things have changes a lot over 2000 years.

Long before the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles, long before the establishment of parliament, and long before the invasion of William the Conqueror, Celtic tribes inhabited the British isles. Unlike their modern-day namesakes in the Boston Garden, these Celtics lived not for the fast break but for the farm. Life was a struggle which revolved around successful harvests and productive herds; if their gardens failed, they couldn't simply pay a visit to the neighborhood supermarket and buy what they needed.

As a result, the Celts did everything in their power to insure that each drop they planted would bring the maximum yield. To do this, they carefully followed the instructions of the Druids - the Celtic's spiritual leaders who filled a position combining the duties of priest, doctor and agricultural agent.

According to tradition, Druids led the Celts in two major rituals each year. The first rite, Beltone, was slated for May 1st and aimed to curry the favor of the gods controlling the growth of things living. Since the Celts believed that every part of nature was sacred, this celebration required elaborate preparation.

At the end of the summer, on October 31st, the Celts honored Samhain, the Lord of the Dead, through a celebration that included both feasting and sacrifice. In part, the festival of Samhain served as a collective prayer meeting where people in the community gave thanks for the bounty they had reaped from their toil in the fields. More importantly, however, this holiday gave the Celts a golden opportunity to help the souls of stranded family members and friends escape from a state of limbo.

If they led upright lives, the Celts expected that their souls would become part of another human being, but if they transgressed, they faced a dire fate. Sinners' souls wound up inside animals. Luckily, after the sun went down that evening, they had one chance to save these lost souls by offering sacrifices to the Lord of Death in hopes that he would treat departed wrongdoers less harshly. Still, as George W. Douglas pointed out in The American Book of Days, they had to be very careful in choosing which animal went on the altar. "The cat was sacred," Williams wrote, "and it was long believed that cats had once been human beings and had been changed into that form for punishment for evil deeds." For some reason, the Celts were convinced that horses were the proper animal for this sacrifice.

During the night of October 31st, the Celts also believed that the spirits of the dead were permitted to return to the world to visit with the living. Unfortunately, at the same time, these returning human spirits were often joined by a host of malevolent ghosts, witches, goblins, and fairies capable of causing untold harm, and they had only one way to defend against this menagerie.

Just before the sunset, the druids canvassed the neighborhood, going door to door seeking donations of material to be used in a giant bonfire - a tradition many believe gave rise to today's trick or treating. Once they had gathered a sufficient stash of combustibles, they hiked to the nearest high point of land and set this pile on fire. "On that night," J. Walker McSpadden recalled, "great fires were kindled on the hills, and men have been seen standing in circles, waving a lot of pitchforks with plaited whisps of blazing straw for the purpose of warding off the attacks of witches." Since these evil spirits could not endure flames, fire was the perfect protection, and although societies through the centuries let this practice get a little out of hand in a series of witch hunts, it fulfilled the needs of the Celts.

When the Roman armies marched through most of Great Britain more than 2,000 years ago, they brought their own religious customs which happened to blend neatly with Celtic activities. The Romans kept the holiday of Feralia in honor of martyrs and national heroes, and while they objected to the sacrifice of horses, they too celebrated with fire and ritual. the later habit of burning fruits and nuts to foretell the future, for example, came from the Romans who used them partially as a sacrifice for their harvests and partially to predict coming events. In any case, by the eighth century, these two traditions had merged into a celebration known as Halloween. Since Pope Gregory III had decreed November 1st to be All Saints Day - or "All Hollows Day" - the night before was called "All Hallows Eve" or, in its shortened form, Halloween.

Changing with time, the customs practiced on Halloween became less of a thanksgiving for the harvest and more of a venture into the world of the occult. "There was an atmosphere of fear," McSpadden observed, "which made the people perform all sorts of rituals to keep off evil spirits." As with the flames and "testing" witches (women believed to have sold themselves to the devil) through ordeal by fire, the people developed elaborate games witch remain popular today.

In one such game, the forerunner of "Last One in is a Rotten Egg," everyone gathered around the bonfire watching the flames slowly burn down. As soon as the last ember died, they would rush madly downhill and crash headlong into their homes, believing that the last person in the group would be snatched up by the devil.

Since Halloween gave wicked spirits their once-a-year chance to return and do evil, all misfortunes on this day were blamed on visitors from beyond the grace (and this the "trick" aspect of the "trick-or-treat" was begun). In addition, children who were born on this night, were thought to possess special powers to see ghosts and witches, and at midnight anyone who sat on a three-legged stool at a place where three roads converged would be certain to hear spirits whispering the names of people destined to die in the coming year.

The customs of Halloween in more recent years have focused almost entirely on predicting future events, and in Scotland this holiday has become a national "Dating Game" where men and women gather together to learn who their mates will be. After dinner, eligible men are blindfolded and taken, one at a time, to the edge of a table with three dishes set on the surface. If they dip a finger into the bowl containing clean water, they're certain to marry a maiden soon, and if they dip into the bowl with dirty water, they'll marry a widow. But, if a man dips into the empty bowl, it means he'll never find a wife. This, as Scottish poet Robert Burns noted in "Halloween" could prove vexing to those who dipped into the wrong container. Three times Uncle John tried his luck, and three times he wound up dry-fingered, so he simply seized the bowls and chucked them into the fire.

Other traditions repeated the same marriage-forecasting theme. If a maiden ate an apple on Halloween night while looking into a mirror, she was certain to spy her husband-to-be peeping back at her in the reflection. In Ireland, young women place chestnuts on a grill - one for herself and one for each of the men courting her - and watched intently to see what transpired. If the nut cracked, it meant that that particular man wasn't to be trusted, but if the nut burned, the man in question was given the seal of approval. Best of all, if her nut burned at the same time as the nut of the one she loved, a woman could count on a happy marriage within a year. Some argue that the same tradition is carried on today through computer dating services.

The Irish also practiced divination with a special Halloween meal served to all unmarried men and women. Known as "Callcannon," this main course was a mixture of potatoes, parsnips, and onions into which the cook added a ring, a coin, a tiny china doll, and a thimble. When portions were doled out, they believed that the person who found the ring would be married soon, that the person who received the coin could expect great wealth, and that the person with the China doll would bear many children, For the person with the thimble, the meal was harder to digest, since it foretold of an unhappy life with no marriage and no children.

Halloween didn't cross the Atlantic and become popular in America until the late 1840s when the Potato Famine in Ireland convinced many to seek a better life in the New World. Growing slowly at first, Halloween had become a popular holiday - especially in New England - by the turn of the century. Today, whenever the grinning face of a carved pumpkin appears outlined in the flickering light of a candle, children and adults know instinctively that it's the symbol of Halloween, in the same way that they understand the turkey and pilgrims represent Thanksgiving. However, few people except the Irish can explain why this large orange gourd has come to stand for Halloween.

While some historians suggest that the pumpkin simply stands for the autumn harvest's bounty, and others believe that its lighted candle comes from the Druid's hilltop fires, the tradition actually began with an Irishman named Jack who reputedly led a wicked and selfish life. Tight with his money and loose with his liquor, Jack feared that he was bound straight for hell since he had no intention of changing his evil ways To keep from burning, he devised a clever plan. Promising the Devil a juicy piece of fruit, Jack lured Satan up into the branches of an apple tree. Just before the Devil reached the fruit, Jack ran to the tree, carved a cross in the bark, and kept the Devil from coming down until he promised never to take his soul. Reluctantly, the Devil agreed.

After Jack died he approached the gates of Heaven asking to be let in, but because of his evil life, St. Peter turned him away. He next ventured to hell where the Devil - remembering his promise - also refused Jack admission. "But where can I go?", Hack asked. "Back where you came from," the Devil answered.

Condemned to an eternal life between Heaven and Hell, Jack turned and walked away, nibbling on a large turnip as he went. Just as Jack was leaving, the Devil grabbed a burning coal straight from the fires of hell and threw it in his direction. As the same moment, Jack spun around, saw what was happening, and held up the turnip to catch the hot, glowing coal. From that day forward, he has carried his own Jack-o-Lantern wherever he traveled as a reminder of his everlasting damnation. Fortunately, the pumpkin is seen in a different light today.


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