One Celtic tradition that crossed the Atlantic with many Irish and Scottish immigrants was the “Jack Tales.” The one familiar to most of us is the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Recently, I’ve learned that there are many more of these tales of a sharp-witted trickster named Jack. Here’s one for Halloween:
The Celts have long observed Samhain (pronounced sah-wheen) on October 31, marking the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. As the northern nights grew longer, the Celts believed Samhain was the night when the world of the dead and the spirits was closest to the world of the living.
From this has grown our tradition of ghosts and goblins abroad in the night. In ancient times, people dressed in costumes to scare the real ghouls away. Offerings of special foods were set out to appease the ghosts so they would leave without committing mischief. Hence our tradition of “Trick or Treat.”
The popular Jack-o-Lantern was also part of this tradition. The tale goes that Jack’s spirit roamed the earth on Samhain, but decided he needed a light to better find his way. In a farmer’s field he found a very large turnip, hollowed it out, cut eye-holes, and put a candle inside. Thus was born the JACK-o-Lantern.
Perhaps others in the world of the living took Jack’s idea and turned it into a light to keep the ghosts and ghouls away, placing the lights on their porches or in a window. In America, pumpkins were more common than turnips and easier to carve. And so our tradition was born.
Well, it’s finally here. Halloween. Samhain to the ancient Celts. It marks the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. A dark time in the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere. No wonder the Celts of Ireland and Scotland, and the Norse of Scandinavia, marked it as a time when the dead were said to walk the earth for a night. I’m glad the Medieval Church set it aside as the Eve of All Saints’ Day, a time to remember those who have gone before us, and to reflect on their legacy to us. So that’s what I’m doing.
As I look into my family tree, I’m remembering all the things my ancestors have left to me. And I’m looking for ways to pass this legacy on to my children, the next generation. Reading about all the trials and problems my ancestors went through in their lives reminds me how much we take for granted now. Things like central heating and electric lights. Hot and cold running water. That’s just a few.
As the days shorten and the darkness seems to close around (especially in this northern latitude) it’s good to know that this old earth is still turning in its appointed course around the sun. Even though winter follows autumn, spring will come in its time, too. Some of my friends like to be snowbirds, but I enjoy the changing seasons. Maybe I’m strange, but I think I would get bored living in a place where it’s always summer.
This is an excerpt of a revised version of my very first ever story, written when I was in third grade.
Silky shrank behind the vat of black, bubbling brew. She watched Witch Gertrude put on her best black dress, her pointed hat, and then rub baby oil on the wart on her nose.
Silky hated Halloween for one big reason. She feared riding on skinny old broomsticks. She’d have to dig her claws deep into the handle or the wind might blow her off.
“Silky!” yelled Witch Gertrude, lifting a torch. “Where are you, my beastly beast? Let’s go!”
Shadows wavered on the walls like bats. Silky scrunched in her corner. Witch Gertrude looked behind rows of pickled wasp wings, under the table where bottles of beetle dust sat, behind the case of snakeskins, just everywhere.
Finally, she dunked her torch in a kettle of water. She peered into the shadows until she saw – two eyes, shining like candle flames.
“Aha, there you are,” she cackled. Grabbing Silky by the scruff of the neck, Witch Gertrude plopped her on the broomstick.
Silky hung on tight. They swished through the door and up into the starry sky. Under the orange moon, Witch Gertrude shrieked like a banshee, scaring owls, skunks, bats, and sweethearts.
Silky tried not to look down.
They sailed into a dark cloud. Wet mist plastered Silky’s fur flat to her skin.
“Witch Brunhilde! Watch where you’re going!” screamed Witch Gertrude, lying flat on her back.
Witch Brunhilde got up and started picking thorns out of her black dress. “I think I had the right-of-way,” she said. “Anyway, I was just out for a little Halloween fun.”
Silky had landed on her feet as cats usually do. She stretched and looked around. Suddenly, her back arched. Her black fur stood on end and she spit and hissed.
“What are you afraid of now?” snapped Witch Gertrude, rubbing all the places where she ached.
“Well, cast a spell on me,” said Witch Brunhilde. “It’s a jack-o-lantern. Humans make them, you know. They’re supposed to scare us witches away.”
“I’m sure we can do something about that,” Witch Gertrude said.
Silky could now see that the jack-o-lantern had a big, friendly grin. She tiptoed behind the witches.
I have always loved dressing up for Halloween. That’s not unusual for a kid, when I went as a teddy bear or Pippy Longstocking with wires in my braids to get them to curl upright. But when it comes to Halloween, I just never got over it.
In college I would pull a costume together at a thrift store in no time. The photo on the left is Halloween 1984 when I found a pair of white go-go boots and went out dancing looking like an extra on Laugh-In. The next year? A toga. The next year? Marlo Thomas on That Girl.
As an adult I’ve worn chicken bones in my hair, a mud mask on my face, and taken my children trick or treating as a “cave mom.”
The surprise to me is that my husband is now on board. Several years ago he donned a disco wig and leather pants, so I countered with a blonde Hannah Montana wig and pleather pants left over from an 80’s party, and we embarrassed our daughters by going door to door in our neighborhood.
The next years…
Morticia & Gomez Adams from The Adams Family
Ozzie & Harriet (But the Ozzie is heavy metal Ozzie Osbourne 🙂
The question for this year… What theme can I come up with that allows me to dress up the dog too?
When I figure it out, I’ll post photos on my FB page… Happy Reading & Happy Halloween!
October is my favorite month of the year. The air is crisp. The leaves are dressed in their beautiful autumn attire. There’s a rush to get those last summer projects completed and get everything “winterized.” It’s time to pull out that favorite oversized sweater or hoodie—the one you live in all winter long. You overhear the terms “witch” or “old hag” and assume it’s a reference to costumes and not a monstrous comment on some poor soul’s personality. Costco puts sinfully delicious pumpkin pies on sale and like the wicked witch calling to Dorothy, the pies beckon you, “Come here, my pretty.”
There are also those “aw-shucks” moments when realizations of projects left undone haunt our psyche. We never made that trip to Glacier, those fishing rods we bought in June have never touched the water, and the new fire pit doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance of getting finished this year.
But just wait until next spring, we promise ourselves. In the meantime, we console ourselves with the knowledge that October brings Halloween and Halloween brings both the best chocolate sales of the year and the first dusting of snow. Sipping a cup of hot chocolate as you watch the first snow of the new season fall softly outside your window is a combination that will sooth the souls of even the most frightful little ghouls and goblins.