As immigration to the United States began, individuals from the British Isles found the Appalachian Mountains immensely appealing. The rolling, mist shrouded green hills reminded them of home. As Celtic transplants created new lives in these mountains, they retained much of their folklore from the Mother land. And some of what was once traditional Celtic celebrations became enmeshed in American culture, including Halloween.
Because the Celts were semi-nomadic herdsmen and agriculturists, their holy days revolved around the changing seasons. Their most sacred holiday was Samhain on October 31. This day marked the beginning of winter, the final harvest and the time when herds were brought in to shelter from the fields. This day was considered the beginning of a new year.
By the 400 C.E., Christianity was declared the legal religion and mass conversions took place. The church adopted November 1 as All Saints Day, and October 31 as All Hallows Eve, which later was shortened to Halloween. Though people slowly converted, many of the old traditions stuck and came along to America.
For instance, the jack-o-lantern became part of the Halloween celebration compliments of the Celts. In Celtic lands, all hearth fires were extinguished and a new one kindled from the Samhain communal bonfire. Each family would carry home a coal in a hollowed out turnip. Sometimes a frightening face was carved into the turnip to scare away the marauding spirits out on that night. When the Irish immigrants arrived in America, they delighted in the size and carving potential of the native pumpkin. The fat, orange harvest vegetable was quickly substituted for the turnip.
Telling fortunes has always been a fun part of the holiday. The most popular old-world divinations for young women made use of apples. An apple was peeled in one, long paring, and then thrown over the shoulder. The peeling supposedly would land in the shape of the initial of the man the young woman would marry. Another tool used to find one’s husband entailed sticking apple seeds on girls’ cheeks, each one named for a beau. The one that stuck the longest symbolized the suitor she would marry.
And what’s Halloween without trick-or-treating? Trick-or-Treating may have had several ways of entering into popular culture. One possibility came from British Isles. During Samhain in the Old Country, the Celts hid from mischievous spirits by costuming themselves in ghoulish disguises so that wandering spirits would mistake them for one of their own and pass by without incident. Sometimes they formed parade, leading out of the village, in hopes of tricking the spirits to follow them away from their homes. In some parts of the British Isles, soul cakes were baked and staked by the door of the home. The town’s poor came begging, offering prayers for the dead in return for a soul cake. In Christian times, Church parishioners were urged to dress up as saints, angels and devils for church processions on October 31. The tradition slowly caught on and contemporary trick-or-treating as we know it grew popular during 1920-1950.
Photo credit: Burpee Seeds