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Friday, October 29, 2010

An Irish-American Halloween!

This weekend thousands of children will dress up and walk door-to-door begging homeowners for candy. Halloween seems more popular than ever, and even though I’m not a big fan, I am curious to find out how all of these traditions started. I was lucky enough to find Lesley Pratt Bannatyne’s Halloween: An American Holiday, and American History. Now, before our Wiccan patrons get bent out of shape, Bannatyne is not arguing Americans invented Halloween. Instead, she’s showing how the holiday evolved in America. Her book spends little time discussing Halloween’s medieval roots, opting to focus more on how Americans have celebrated the holiday. Here are a few of my questions and the answers I was able to find:

How did the pumpkin become a popular Halloween symbol?

Bannatyne argues that once upon a time “Irish villagers” made lanterns from turnip or beet roots. Bannatyne claims, “When the Irish immigrants arrived in America, they delighted in the size and carving potential of the native pumpkin. The fat orange harvest vegetable was quickly substituted for the turnip, and the carved-out, snaggle-toothed Halloween jack-o’-lantern was born.” (78)

Why do we tolerate begging on Halloween?

While Bannatyne cannot fully explain why we allow our children to become panhandlers during Halloween, she does offer this interesting description:
The custom of begging for food from house to house on Halloween came from the old Catholic soul-cake custom. Once charitable in nature, “souling” took a popular turn as it evolved over the years. Irish Halloween begging always involved a masquerade and some sort of good-natured bribe, but who did the begging and what they were after varied from region to region.” (66)

What were weird ways people conjured spirits in Early America?

Bannatyne explains some interesting ways people tried to predict their futures:
While the men were out sounding their horns and drinking strong ale on Halloween night, young Irish women gathered and summoned up the realm of the spirit. Their concerns were similar to all who seek out the future: Would they be healthy or ill? Would they have a life of wealth or poverty? Most important of all, whom would they marry? (71).


“Cabbage and kale, unlikely magical tools that they may seem, were assumed by the Irish to possess great fortune-telling power. The foods were plentiful throughout the British Isles, and young people pulled up kale plants to judge the nature of their future spouses from the taste, the shape, and amount of dirt clinging to the root. The divination worked best if the kale was stolen; it was most telling if practiced on Halloween.” (72)

Overall, Bannatyne offers an excellent study of Halloween and a better understanding of how ethnic groups like the Irish influenced how Americans celebrate Halloween.

Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1998.

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