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How did black cats, free candy, bonfires and dressing up like ghouls become part of America’s favorite night of the walking dead?

Wavelengths By Jim Kempton
By Jim Kempton

By Jim Kempton

They say Halloween is by far the safest day to kill someone.

Just do the deed and leave the victim propped up on your front porch. No one would give it a second glance. Without a doubt, Oct. 31 is one weird holiday. Where did all these crazy customs come from anyway?

Ireland is generally accepted as the holiday’s birthplace more than 6,000 years ago. In some ways that explains everything. The Irish have always been self-admittedly, certifiably bonkers, right?

Early Druids (the priest caste of the Celtic civilization) named the holiday. The Druids were accomplished astronomers who created their own calendar. The last day of October was their end of the year New Year’s Eve celebration—more like New Year’s Eve—a wild, raucous celebratory rage, certainly not like the kids night we commemorate today. These pre-Christian pagans called this holy night the “Hallow Evening,” shortened (in Irish speak) to “Hallow E’en.”

The tradition of trick-or-treating came from the Celtic custom of offering candies and other “treats” to appease apparitions at Samhain, the festival we now call Halloween

The practice became a purposeful ritual in the ancient British Isles; people hoped that these sweet offerings would protect them from evil much like the carved, glowing pumpkins they also placed before their home’s entrance. Today (in foolish defiance of this hallowed tradition) there are some well-meaning folks who think they are teaching children good habits by passing out fruit on Halloween. And they wonder why they get their pumpkins smashed.

Samhain (the ancient “lord of darkness”) eventually earned a permanent role in this weird and wonderful Celtic festival. Witches, cats and bonfires joined him in Halloween folklore. During this night of superstitious revelry, Druids purportedly threw cats into a fire, to help with predicting the future. (Makes lighting bonfires seem pretty tame doesn’t it?)

In fact bonfires were first built by Druid priests to ensure the sun would return after the long winter. Often they would throw the bones of cattle into the flames—“bone fire” eventually evolving into “bonfire.”

The tradition of dressing up as ghouls originated from the ancient Celtic tradition. The Celts believed that masquerading in ghostly costume would fool the real spirits out on the loose during Samhain. (It makes sense to me; my wife says I always look better with a mask covering my mug.)

Some centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church created All Saints Day on Nov 1 to honor the souls of the dead. But the thinly-disguised ulterior motive was to remove the spooky revelry of the pagan Halloween celebrations. Obviously they did not entirely succeed.

 Jim Kempton remembers trick-or-treat activity as a contradiction in childhood. His parent’s constant mantra was ‘Never take candy from strangers.’ Then once a year they would buy him a werewolf costume and tell him to go out to complete stranger’s homes and demand it.


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