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From Searching Spirits to Sugar-Fueled Superheroes

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The invasion of little princesses, superheroes and assorted creatures and ghouls in search of sugary treats might not invoke images of pre-Christian Ireland, but that is exactly where today’s Halloween traditions originated. While in many parts of the world, Halloween is seen as an American holiday, in truth it came to North America with immigrants from Ireland and became one of the least acknowledged Irish gifts ever.

Samhain, as it was originally called, was more than a harvest festival.  The point roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice was when crops were harvested, but it was also the end of the year.  And after a whole year, the veil between the world of the living mortals and the world of the spirits of the dead and various immortal creatures was worn thin.  Thus it was a time for those from beyond the veil to enter the world of the living for a visit, welcome or not.  Many of today’s Halloween traditions have evolved from the tactics the living used to protect themselves from their otherworldly guests.

  • Jack O’Lanterns were not always pumpkins.  In fact, pumpkins were unknown to the original Jack O’Lantern carvers.  Our ancestors carved out turnips with gruesome faces to frighten off the visiting spirits.  When the Irish arrived in the United States, they realized pumpkins worked better than turnips. The original purpose of the Jack O’Lantern evolved from fright to fun, and pumpkin carving became an essential part of Halloween.  
  • Costumes also evolved from tactic for evading the spooky spirits from beyond the veil to a celebration of creativity.  If you can’t beat them, join them.  So the ancient Irish population disguised themselves as spirits to blend in and move freely on the night when those from the other world were out and about.  Costumes were originally only scary creatures, but as Halloween evolved into a fun children’s holiday the costumes evolved too.
  • Treats were basically bribes to the spirits to encourage them not to play tricks.  Households would leave various goodies on the front step of their cottage in case any spirits passing by wanted a snack.  Hospitality to all, living or dead, has always been an Irish gift.  It’s bad enough to be visited by a ghastly ghoul, but no one wants a hungry, cranky ghost in their house.  Of course, the treats have evolved too.  Today’s visiting ghosts wouldn’t be too impressed with apples, and offering them wine would create some really scary scenarios.

While bonfires aren’t part of Halloween in North America, they one of the ancient Irish gifts that still mark the day in Ireland.  Another Irish Halloween tradition is fortune telling.  Barm brack cakes are still popular in Ireland, and traditionally tokens such as coins and rings were baked into them to symbolize what the new year would hold for whoever got the slice with a particular token. What better day to speculate about the future than the end of one year and the start of another?

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