Halloween frights and delights have a long history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 3, 2001

Halloween is a holiday synonymous with costumes, candy corn, trick-or-treaters and images of Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

For some it's just a little too spooky and scary, conjuring up images of witchcraft and satanic worship that are best avoided.

For others, it's a harmless excuse to dress up in a silly outfit, watch old horror movies and eat a few too many M & Ms.

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How did this whole Halloween phenomenon begin?

To find out, let's travel back in time about 2,000 years to the land of the ancient Celts in the British Isles and what is now Northern France.

(Incidentally, these are the people from whom many southerners of today descend.)

The Celts were a simple people who loved the land, farmers and metalworkers who put great trust in "the powers above."

They found nature's transitions

the changing of seasons, night turning to day, the beginning of a new year

all magical and mysterious.

Not only did the end of October mark the first harvest for the Celts, it also meant the coming of a new year on November 1.

So, it seemed perfectly natural to combine these two events into a festival,the festival of Samhain, "the end of the summer."

Many scholars believe Samhain was also the Celtic lord of the dead, who, according to legend, sent hordes of spirits, ghouls and goblins to all the villages on October 31.

No one wanted to be tricked by a hostile fairy or have their firstborn snatched to the netherworld by sinister forces.

So, the early Celts wore masks and animal skins and lit bonfires on the highest hills, hoping to scare the spirits away.

(It's even thought the contrast of brilliant orange flames against the inky blackness of the sky is where Halloween got its distinctive spooky colors).

Even after the mighty Roman legions conquered the Celts in the first century A.D. those hardy folk held on to many of their traditions.

However, certain Roman customs such as bobbing for apples and drinking cider (sound familiar?) were added to the Samhain festivities.

By the fifth century A.D., the fledgling religion called Christianity was making inroads into the Celtic world, which wasn't too keen on the pagan holidays.

The Celts were looked on as devil worshippers by the early Christians.

(In actuality, the Celtic religion had no devil and their underworld, a land of eternal youth and happiness, was completely unlike the Christian vision of Hell.)

The church decided to bring a distinctly Christian aspect to the celebration.

In 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration of all the martyrs (later all saints) from May 13 to November 1.

The night before became known as All Hallow's Even ("holy evening").

The name was shortened over the years to Halloween.

On November 2, the church celebrates All Souls Day.

These feasts are a reminder of all those who have died and is meant to be a time of somber reflection and prayer for the departed.

Even with the Christianization of the old pagan festival, certain ancient traditions hung on and new traditions were added over the centuries. Many of the old superstitions never quite faded away.

Groups of Irish farmers once roamed the countryside hundreds of years ago, collecting food and materials for a feast and bonfire.

Those generous with their donations were promised health and prosperity.

Those who were stingy received threats of bad luck.

When large numbers of Irish immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1800s, so did this tradition of "trick-or-treating."

The Irish are also to be thanked for the jack o' lanterns that light up our front porches on Halloween.

Only this tradition began with, not a carved pumpkin, but a carved…turnip.

Yes, in the old days people would hollow out turnips and place lighted candles inside to ward off any evil spirits lurking in the dark.

Once the Irish arrived in America, they discovered the pumpkin was a larger, and dare we say, more attractive, substitute for the turnip.

So, strange costumes, grinning pumpkins, cider-sipping and plenty of black and orange candy are today all part of a tradition that goes back centuries.

Have a happy and safe Halloween!