Musings from the Hill, Oct. 29, 2015
Halloween! Wicked witches, ghosts and goblins, black cats, bats and grinning jack-o-lanterns. Did you ever wonder how it all began?
When we put on masks and light the pumpkins, we are observing traditions with roots lost in the mists of time. Halloween is one of the oldest festive celebrations. Many customs and superstitions have grown up around this day.
Far older than the Christian era, Halloween can be traced back to the Druids who lived in Britain. They lighted fires before the onset of winter to drive away evil spirits of the dead believed to roam abroad at this time.
The Druids, who were Celts, were conquered by the Romans. Their lighted fires became a celebration honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits. Apples and nuts were roasted in the flames. The Druid rites mingled with the pagan gods of Rome.
Then came the Christian era, and the celebration was changed again to “All Hallow Eve.” Many of the peasants clung to the old pagan customs and ancient superstitions. Gradually through the intermingling of many cultures and beliefs our Halloween emerged; a time of fun and frolic.
The jack-o-lantern probably evolved in England. “Jack” commonly meant “man” as in “jack-of-all-trades.” The night watchman was called jack–o-lantern. Old Irish tradition says that a man named Jack could not enter heaven. He was sent to hell. There he played so many tricks on the devil he was expelled and condemned to roam the earth forever carrying a lantern.
In Scotland, a large turnip was often used to hold a candle. After migrating to the new world, the plentiful pumpkin was put to use. The villagers in early Britain disguised themselves in masks as they rollicked around huge fires. They were called “guisers.” The two customs combined and now we dress up and light a grinning jack-o-lantern.
The black cat riding on the broom with the wicked witch, and the bat hovering above, leave a ghostly trail leading for back into antiquity.
The cat has physical characteristics and habits that have been fixed for 10 to 30 million years. Egyptians domesticated the cat centuries before the birth of Christ. Killing a cat was punishable by death. When a cat died, usually, it was embalmed and buried as a human. Druids used black cats in their rites. They believed the souls of the wicked reposed in them as punishment for their evil deed.
In Old Russia, the peasants thought that bats were really vampires who emerged from the grave to prey upon the sleeping.
Today we dispense with gloom and doom and concentrate on the fun of Halloween. We bob for apples never thinking of the pagan gods of Tome. We light the pumpkin forgetting the symbolic connection with the ancient Druids’ fires. We go to church on All Hallow Eve not realizing the treads of time connect with a far older ceremony.
Now, for some local Halloween stories from long ago: The farm boys would rope any farm vehicles left unattended and drag them into town and line them up on Main Street. The next day, it had been carefully noted, and the perpetrators had to haul them back home. A favorite trip was roping the outhouse with horses and pulling it off its foundation, preferably when someone was inside. One day, the story goes, one local moved his outhouse off the foundation, and when they went to rope it the boys fell in. George R. usually knew the culprits and if the boys scattered manure on the streets, he rounded them up and made them clean it up right away or do it the next day when the whole town watched them. I never did find out who put the pastor’s buggy on the church roof. Do any old-timers know who was responsible?
Beloved Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley recaptures these spectral links with the past in his poem, Little Orphan Annie, “An’ the Gobbluns’ll git you, Ef you don’t watch out.”