An Historical Essay by Don Vallone, Jr.
The evolution of Halloween can be traced farther back in history than any other holiday that we celebrate today. It is perhaps for this reason that, for many people, this holiday seems to awaken ancient feelings of fear and mystery.
times, human kind relied upon the land and agriculture to sustain
that time, before the sciences of astronomy and meteorology had
did not understand how and why the seasons changed. There was
(perhaps instinctive and residual from the ice ages?) that the coming
might always mean a permanent end to their ability to grow crops and
warm. Some also believed that gods or demons controlled these
changes. They felt that one way to help ensure that Summer
again was to offer sacrifices and gifts to the spirits that controlled
destiny. In some cultures, when the days began to grow colder
prime portions of the harvest were offered in great ceremonies with the
that in exchange they would be granted a short Winter and another
to provide for their families. When the harvest had ended,
were lit in the fields to honor their gods and goddesses in
thanksgiving for the
productive growing season. A festival was held for three days
Celtic peoples of England and France, who celebrated November 1st as a
transition from the old year to the new. Before the bonfires
went out, families would
collect burning embers from the fires and bring them to their homes to
own fires to keep them warm throughout the winter It was
these special fires also protected them from evil spirits.
As Christianity was introduced throughout Europe, many had trouble leaving their old ways behind. The growing Church of Rome helped sustain the belief that those who did not follow the Christian faith must be followers of the devil. Soon, there were tremendous numbers of witch-sightings throughout Europe and the devil became a popular subject of stories and art. Up to this time, the ritualistic celebration was known as "Samhain" (pronounced "sow-ween"), which meant the "end of summer", and was being celebrated by the Celts throughout Great Britain with a long festival that included role-playing by people dressed in costumes made from dead animals. Around this time the Church tried to squelch the pagan event by inventing a holiday of their own, called "All Hallow's Day" (hallow meaning one who is holy or sainted as in "hallowed be thy name"). Modern Catholics still celebrate "All Saint's Day" as a holy day on November 1st each year. The religious holiday was intentionally assigned to the same time of year and with a similar concept to that of Samhain - to give thanks to a higher being and to welcome the passing of the seasons with patience and faith. All Hallow's Day eventually gained the larger audience as the Catholic church grew in popularity (and power), and was intended to be a day of general; worshiping of all of the Roman Catholic saints. A holy day honoring all of the dead (not just saints) was celebrated the next day on November 2nd and was called "All Soul's Day". The night before All Hallow's Day was called "All Hallow's Evening", which was eventually shortened to "Hallowe'en". Although we've dropped the apostrophe from the modem holiday's name, the mysterious and fearful aspects of the original celebration of Samhain eventually found a home on the night of Hallowe'en. The ritualistic worship of the departed, renewed by the Church, has helped to keep Halloween a popular event for many to contemplate the mysteries and fears that we associate with death and the beyond. It is a time to connect with our ancient past. Because Summer still changes to Winter much the same as it did centuries ago, it is a magical and mystical time of year that opens a "window" of sorts to our past and connects us to our primitive ancestors who collected the burning embers from the harvest bonfires on a cold and starlit night.....pensively retreating to their homes for the Winter and contemplating the possibility and fears of the unpredictable, the incomprehensible, and the unknown.
Witches and Halloween
First, let me tell you about the history of witches in America. Did you know that during the 16th and 17th centuries, many people were accused of being witches and burned alive or hanged as a punishment for casting spells on their neighbors? Yes, it's true. Many small New England towns are to this day haunted by the witches that once lived among ordinary people.
Witchcraft began to be practiced in ancient times and has it's roots buried deep in Africa, where before there was organized religions the people believed in spirits that had the power to do good and evil. These powerful spirits could not be spoken to by just anyone. Only people with a special power could communicate with them. These special people were called "witch doctors" and were leaders of the people. The people did what the witch doctors told them because they feared the power of the spirits that could be conjured up by the witch doctors. They seemed to have special potions and spells to cure some and hurt others. As time passed and societies developed in the islands off the African coast, some people practiced the magic spells to gain the evil powers of the unseen spirits to change the course of behavior among people in their tribes. They would sometimes make masks or dolls to use in their ceremonies. This kind of magic was called "voodoo". When Europeans sailed in great ships to the islands to steal slaves, this voodoo witchcraft was introduced to the rest of the world. Eventually, many ordinary people presumed that evil powers were responsible for unexplainable occurrences, such as deaths and plagues. Before the great witch hunts, it was not uncommon for people to proclaim themselves to be witches in service to the devil in order to scare others into doing what they wanted. They believed that human beings were sensitive to changes in nature, and that the forces of nature could be gathered and directed to alter the metaphysical world around them.
Witchcraft became a type of religion practiced by those who wanted to harness the forces of nature to create "magic". The witches were feared and when seemingly evil occurrences happened among the civilized people, there were witch hunts. In the 16th and 17th centuries, witches began to be hunted and burned or hanged in an attempt to rid society of the evil plaguing it. Witch trials began in Europe and spread to America by the late 1600's, reaching a height of activity in Salem, Mass. in the 1690's, an era known today as the great "witch hysteria". At that point, the witches who escaped the witch trials in America retreated deep into the wilderness to escape persecution. They built cabins made of log and stone. They became dirty and uncivilized, using animals for ceremonies and to help them conspire with the forces of nature. They would light great bonfires during their ceremonies and cook stews of unusual meats and vegetables that they would gather in the woods. They kept company with animals and used the animals to communicate with people in the villages. These animals, especially the cat, were believed to be bewitched and in service with the witches and the devil. There are real witches today that practice magic spells and are the descendants of the original witches. They cackle and moan in the eerie night around great harvest bonfires in the haunted woods.
Death and Halloween
Long before witches came to America with the pilgrims on the Mayflower, the woods were haunted with the spirits of dead Indians. Ancient Indian burial grounds are scattered across the continent, and continue to be the source of great hauntings to this day. During the days of Autumn when the waning light and oncoming chill of Winter are apparent, there seems to exist a window into the other side of life.....a darker side where the tortured souls of the dead can wander in coexistence with the living. Centuries ago, people began celebrated the night of the wandering souls on October 31. The idea that the souls of the dead that were not yet at rest actually wandered among the living on one night of each year was a common theme in nearly all religions. Catholics to this day celebrate "All Souls Day" with parades and ceremonies. Traditional Italian lore says that on this night, the souls of dead family and friends would visit the homes where children lived. The souls would fill socks left by the front door with fruits and nuts. In Mexico, a celebration called "The Day Of The Dead" is highlighted by the lighting of candles in graveyards and praying for lost souls to find there way to peace.
Remembering Hallowe'en Past
Old things.....Vintage Halloween memories from the nineteenth and twentieth century
Vintage Children's Halloween Music
Downloadable MP3 versions of some of our favorite children's Halloween songs (now quickly becoming favorites of Samantha and Maranda):
This weeks offering - "Trick-or-Treat"
"Pass The Witch's Broomstick"
"The Pumpkin Tells"
"Guess What I Am"
"She's Stuck On Her Broomstick"
Check back again for more MP3 downloads!
Tricks and treats in the 21st century!
In the 1970's, a creature was born to haunt the children of my neighborhood. We stuffed a rubber mask, an old jacket, a pair of pants, some gloves, and a pair of boots. We called the assembled monster the "Groundskeeper". A few tricks with a tape recorder, and with a speaker installed in the mask's head, the Groundskeeper came alive every October for many years to haunt our yard. If you look closely, the remains of the Groundskeeper can still be spotted haunting our garage from "beyond"!
Nowdays, Halloween stores specialize in mass-producing props and robotic monsters. Everyone can build a haunt in their own yard or have a spectacular haunted house. The special effects get better every year.
Haunted Places We've Visited
One of the most famous covered bridges in Vermont is in Stowe. It is famous because it is haunted! This bridge was a bit hard to find because it is located away from the busy village in a hidden area along an old dirt road. The bridge has been nicknamed "Emily's Bridge" because a woman name Emily hanged herself from the rafters of the bridge a century and a half ago. People do not go near the bridge at night because of the eerie sounds that come from inside and beneath the bridge. Even during bright daylight, the ghost of Emily haunts visitors. Her presence can be felt as one merely approaches the bridge from the road. Many people claim to have felt a clawing feeling and a feeling of being pulled down the steep bank into the water below. In fact as Amy and I arrived at the bridge, I put the car in park and we opened the doors and began to step out of the car only to feel the car roll forward toward the edge of the steep bank. I fell back into the seat to step on the break. Oddly, the gear shift had somehow been shifted into reverse.....yet the car was moving forward as if it was being pulled toward the water below. I quickly moved the car farther away from the steep drop-off and away from the bridge. Many unexplainable events have occurred at this very location over the past 150 years. If you look closely into the bridge you can see the damage caused to the rafters from the rope that Emily used to hang herself.
Listen to the story of Emily's Bridge
How We Celebrate Halloween.....
.....and Harvest Time!
Cousin Debbie as "The Ghost"
Mom as "The Witch"
Aunt Dot as "The Man", Mom, Dad as "The Hobo", and Mom The Witch
Grandma Montgomery as "The Gypsy", Aunt Dot, and Uncle Bernie as "The Woman"
Uncle Harold as "The Devil" and Grandma The Gypsy
Mom with Uncle Harold and Aunt Thelma as "The Witch's Sister"
(no comment on who is the good witch and who is the wicked witch)
The annual fall foliage trek to Naples, NY was not complete without a stop at the 1812 Country Store in Lima, The Olde Country Store (with their famous "rat cheese" and penny candy) in N. Cohocton , lunch at Bob's 'n' Ruth's Vinyard, a tour through the Widmer Winery, and a stop at the local farm markets. Pictured below is a trip from 1999.
Another happy Halloween memory was a surprise birthday party in 2003!
In 2005, my twins were born into our Halloween family!!
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