Pumpkin Patrol - History of Halloween October 27 2009

[caption id="attachment_2960" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Photo by Jason Tromm"][/caption]What we know today as Halloween is a mixture of practices and traditions, some hundreds of years old. Because it's a holiday full of fun (and candy), the subject matter is interesting for kids. Take advantage of their curiosity to introduce the history of this popular holiday!

The End of Summer…

The Celts lived in parts of what is now known as Great Britain and France two thousand years ago. They worshiped a sun god, who they believe made it possible for them to grow crops during the “season of the sun,” or summer.

October 31st marked the end of summer and the beginning of “the season of darkness.” Celtic people would extinguish the fires burning in their hearths and light huge bonfires out in their villages. They would dress up in costumes using animal skins, dance around the fires, and sacrifice animals and crops to their sun god.

The next day  - November 1st - was the beginning of a new year, and was celebrated by the Celtic people with a holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). During the celebration, Druid priests handed out embers left from the bonfires of the night before; each family received one to light the fires in their homes during the winter not only for warmth, but to keep what they believed to be evil spirits away.

Then The Romans Came…

When Romans invaded the Celtic people during the first century, they brought with them a festival known as “Pomona.” This celebration honored their goddess, named Pomona, whom they believed provided good harvests. Soon, the traditions of Samhain and Pomona combined as the Romans lived among the Celts.

And Finally The Church

The spread of Christianity was the next influence over what we now know as “Halloween.” November 1st, which was considered the new year by the Celts, was renamed “All Saints Day” by the Roman Catholic Church. This was a holiday to honor all of the saints, and was also referred to as “All Hallows Day.” Therefore, the night before – October 31st – would be called “All Hallows Eve,” and eventually shortened to Halloween.

But What About Trick-Or-Treating?

To add to the confusion, November 2nd became known as “All Saints Day” or “All Souls Day,” a day set aside to honor the dead. It was also celebrated with big bonfires (like Samhain) and costumes, along with parades.

Another way to honor the dead in the 800’s was to pray for their souls on this day. At this time, some people believed that the dead were in limbo and needed prayers from those still living in order to get to Heaven. All Saints Day was a way for people to go door to door collecting what were known as “soul cakes,” which resembled squares pieces of bread baked with currants. The more “soul cakes” you gave away, the more prayers the recipients of the pieces of bread prayed for the souls of the recently deceased, encouraging their way toward heaven.

And the Jack-o-Lantern?

The history of the jack-o-lantern is a bit dark. It’s based on an Irish legend about a character by the name of “Stingy Jack,” a man stuck between Heaven and Hell when he died.

Stingy Jack had an active and turbulent relationship with the spiritual realm before his death. Apparently afraid of spending eternity with the Devil, Stingy Jack tricked him into not taking his soul upon Jack's death. Jack convinced the Devil to climb a tree in order to pick a piece of fruit. Then, Stingy Jack carved crosses into the trunk of the tree, trapping the Devil in the branches. He would not free the Devil until he agreed not to take Jack’s soul.

The legend continues with Stingy Jack’s death and arrival at the Pearly Gates of Heaven where he was told that he would not be allowed to spend eternity there. The Devil, still angry about Stingy Jack’s trickery, would not allow him into Hell.

So Stingy Jack was on his own, with only a burning coal to light the night. He placed the coal in a carved out turnip, using it for a lantern. Because of this, the Irish referred to him as “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’Lantern.”

In order to keep Stingy Jack away from their homes, people of Ireland and then Scotland and England carved faces into potatoes, turnips or beets and displayed them outside their houses to scare Jack away. When people from these countries moved to the United States, they brought the tradition with them. Pumpkins, which originated in North America, provided a better carving surface for the Jack-o-Lanterns!

Coming to America

The combination of practices and traditions traveled to America with the immigrants who arrived throughout the history of the United States. Over the last hundred years, Halloween has developed into a billion dollar industry - but how can you use this historical information with your students? Here are some ideas:

  • Discuss with your students why they think Halloween is such a popular holiday in America. Make a list of reasons, then have your students create posters or write expository paragraphs or papers on their thoughts.
  • Make a list of specific traditions that students experience during the month of October, and see if there are any connections or diverse practices. Have students create a graph of the information.
  • What are other traditions that take place over the course of the year might have their histories in other countries? What do your students think they might be? Make a list and create a project that allows them to research and present their findings.
  • Discuss the symbols of Halloween, such as black cats, skeletons and ghosts. Where might these ideas have come from, and why?

Exploring the historical significance of Halloween will attach high-level interest to practicing skills as well as help your students practice asking open-ended questions and developing higher-level thinking skills. Take advantage of the subject matter, and see where it takes you and your students!