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Autumn
Customs and Traditions
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The Roots of Halloween (All Hallow's Eve)

The true origins of Halloween lie with the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. For the Celts, November 1 marked the beginning of a new year and the coming of winter. The night before the new year, they celebrated the festival of Samhain, Lord of the Dead. During this festival, Celts believed the souls of the dead—including ghosts, goblins and witches—returned to mingle with the living. In order to scare away the evil spirits, people would wear masks and light bonfires.

When the Romans conquered the Celts, they added their own touches to the Samhain festival, such as making centerpieces out of apples and nuts for Pomona, the Roman goddess of the orchards. The Romans also bobbed for apples and drank cider—traditions which may sound familiar to you. But where does the Christian aspect of the holiday come into play? In 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration for all the martyrs (later all saints) from May 13 to November 1. The night before became known as All Hallow’s Even or “holy evening.” Eventually the name was shortened to the current Halloween. On November 2, the Church celebrates All Souls Day.

The purpose of these feasts is to remember those who have died, whether they are officially recognized by the Church as saints or not. It is a celebration of the “communion of saints,” which reminds us that the Church is not bound by space or time.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that through the communion of saints “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins

 in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things” (#1475).

Carving the Turnip?

Many of the customs we now associate with Halloween are also derived from ancient celebrations.

For example, the current custom of going door-to-door to collect treats actually started in Ireland hundreds of years ago. Groups of farmers would go door-to-door collecting food and materials for a village feast and bonfire. Those who gave were promised prosperity; those who did not received threats of bad luck. When an influx of Irish Catholic immigrants came to the United States in the 1800s, the custom of trick-or-treating came with them.

Does your family carve a pumpkin to place on your porch for Halloween? If so, then you can once again thank the Irish for the tradition. Actually, the custom began with a turnip. People would hollow out the turnips and place lighted candles inside to scare off the evil spirits. When the Irish came to America, they discovered the pumpkin as a larger substitute for the turnip. And so, we now carve pumpkins instead of turnips for Halloween.

The Tale of the Jack-o'-lantern

So now you know why we carve pumpkins instead of turnips, but why do we call them jack-o’-lanterns? The name actually comes from the legend of an Irishman named Jack who was forced to roam the earth with only a burning coal inside a pumpkin to light his way because he had never performed a single selfless act throughout his life. The story goes like this:

Jack, the Irish say, grew up in a simple village where he earned a reputation for cleverness as well as laziness. He applied his fine intelligence to wiggling out of any work that was asked of him, preferring to lie under a solitary oak endlessly whittling. In order to earn money to spend at the local pub, he looked for an "easy shilling" from gambling, a pastime at which he excelled. In his whole life he never made a single enemy, never made a single friend and never performed a selfless act for anyone.

One Halloween, as it happened, the time came for him to die. When the devil arrived to take his soul, Jack was lazily drinking at the pub and asked permission to finish his ale. The devil agreed, and Jack thought fast. "If you really have any power," he said slyly, "you could transform yourself into a shilling."

The devil snorted at such child’s play and instantly changed himself into a shilling. Jack grabbed the coin. He held it tight in his hand, which bore a cross-shaped scar. The power of the cross kept the devil imprisoned there, for everyone knows the devil is powerless when faced with the cross. Jack would not let the devil free until he granted him another year of life. Jack figured that would be plenty of time to repent. The devil left Jack at the pub.

The year rolled around to the next Halloween, but Jack never got around to repenting. Again the devil appeared to claim his soul, and again Jack bargained, this time challenging him to a game of dice, an offer Satan could never resist, but a game that Jack excelled at. The devil threw snake eyes—two ones—and was about to haul him off, but Jack used a pair of dice he himself had whittled. When they landed as two threes, forming the T-shape of a cross, once again the devil was powerless. Jack bargained for more time to repent.

He kept thinking he’d get around to repentance later, at the last possible minute. But the agreed-upon day arrived and death took him by surprise. The devil hadn’t showed up and Jack soon found out why not. Before he knew it Jack was in front of the pearly gates. St. Peter shook his head sadly and could not admit him, because in his whole life Jack had never performed a single selfless act. Then Jack presented himself before the gates of hell, but the devil was still seething. Satan refused to have anything to do with him.

"Where can I go?" cried Jack. "How can I see in the darkness?"

The devil tossed a burning coal into a hollow pumpkin and ordered him to wander forever with only the pumpkin to light his path. From that day to this he has been called "Jack o’ the Lantern." Sometimes he appears on Halloween!

Even though Halloween may seem like a very secular holiday, and in many ways it has become so, there are distinctly Christian aspects to the holiday [...]

Sources:

  • http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Oct2001/Family.asp
  • http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Halloween/jack-o-lantern.asp

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Created: Sunday, March 11, 2007; Last updated, Wednesday, November 23, 2016
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