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Volume 5, Number 6
19 October 1998

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HALLOWEEN: Mythology Behind a Modern Celebration
Halloween (All Hallows Eve), as the name implies, is a night-time holiday in the United States on October 31 and is the one night in the year when a child's world turns to pure fantasy. Its origins date back hundreds of years before Christ to the Druid Festival of Sanhain, Lord of the Dead and Prince of Darkness, who, according to Celtic belief, gathered up the souls of all those who had died during the year to present them to heaven on October 31. The Sun God shared the holiday and received thanks for the year's harvest.

The custom of telling ghost stories on Halloween also comes from the Druids. To honor the Sun God and to frighten away evil spirits, they would light huge bonfires and, watching the bright flames, they would tell about the eerie happenings they had experienced. Wise old women called "witches" foretold the future and gave magic words to keep away the evil spirits. Black cats were thought to be mascots of the witches, or witches in disguise.

The jack-o-lantern, the most typical of Halloween symbols, began with the Irish. According to the legend, a man named Jack, who was kept out of heaven because he was stingy and expelled from hell for playing tricks on the devil, was condemned to walk the earth forever carrying a lantern to light his way. Today a candle burning inside a carved-out pumpkin makes its merry face visible from far away on a dark night and the pulp makes a delicious pumpkin pie.

"Trick or Treat" likewise had its origin in Ireland, where children would go from house-to-house soliciting food for the village.

Halloween was not widely celebrated in America until the large Gaelic immigration in the 1840s, although earlier colonists had followed the English custom of celebrating Nut Crack Night, when boys and girls gathered around autumn bonfires, cracked nuts and foretold the outcome of love affairs by the way the kernels jumped from the fire. These two faces of Halloween - the playful deference to the supernatural and gratitude for a plenteous harvest - produce a strangely compatible blend of ancient and modern customs. Among young children, "Trick or Treat" and Halloween are synonymous. Even before they can pronounce the words accurately, little children like to dress up in funny and scary costumes and go around the neighborhood ringing doorbells. As the door opens they shout "Trick or Treat." Most adults enjoy seeing the children, especially the tiny ones, and make sure they are ready with plenty of candy, cookies, and fruit.

Recently children in the U.S. gave the holiday a new dimension. In 1950 a Sunday school class in Philadelphia found a way of sharing their "Trick or Treat" loot with children around the world. They replaced their "Trick or Treat" bags with small cartons marked "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" and instead of treats they asked for pennies that UNICEF would send to needy children in other countries. Their motto was “Let's share instead of scare.” In 1996, some 3.5 million American children in more than 13,000 communities collected $ 2.7 million.

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