David Eide – Opinions Columnist
As Halloween inches closer and closer, I find myself contemplating a matter of stark importance: the overcommercialization of Halloween. As we become increasingly focused on material concerns such as candy or ever more elaborate costumes we lose sight of the true reason for the season, namely the warding off of ghosts and other ghoulish entities. I have become concerned enough about evil spirits crossing the thin boundary between our planes of existence to do some research into Halloween folk traditions that used to be practiced in the hopes of finding some way to ward off these creatures of the night.
For example, in the British Isles there is a long tradition of lighting bonfires and keeping them burning throughout the night in order to fend off witches and other beings of the distinctly demonic nature. This tradition has largely died out in America and been replaced by the erection of intricate displays involving electronic lights which obviously have no power over witches and will do nothing to prevent them from bewitching the populace.
This tradition of fire-lighting also ties into one of the most iconic modern Halloween traditions, the carving of jack o’lanterns from pumpkins to make a variety of designs. This custom descends from practices in Ireland and Scotland where turnips would be carved into various faces and placed in windows to frighten off evil spirits on Halloween night. After I compared modern jack o’lanterns to those crafted from turnips I concluded that the turnips were vastly more terrifying than the pumpkins. I know that if I were an evil spirit scheming to invade a home and cause mischief (which I am not) and I saw a turnip jack o’lantern, I would be incorporeally floating the other way.
Fire also ties into yet another Halloween tradition that was once ubiquitous but is now essentially dead: divination. In northern Wales, it was once common to seek white pebbles which would then be placed in a ritual bonfire. If in the morning, after the fire has burnt out, you are unable to find your stone then you will die in the next year. Another common practice utilized apples to predict the name of your true love– which happily coincided with the spookiest of all months. You would peel the apple and then throw the whole peel over your left shoulder and the shape upon landing indicated the initial of your true love. I have no idea why anyone would ever try the first ritual, it really just sounds like asking for trouble.
Another all but abandoned Halloween tradition consists of the baking of “soul-cakes” which are small cakes that commemorate the dead. Some of these cakes were left out overnight for wandering spirits while the rest were handed out to the needy who would go door to door, which slowly morphed into the modern tradition of trick-or-treating. Instead of receiving wholesome, home-cooked bread, modern trick or treaters usually receive chemical confections tasting vaguely of chocolate. The spirits of the dead now go hungry, forcing them to subsist on the souls of those unlucky few who are caught out at night.
Another tradition from which trick-or-treating arose is the custom of “guising” which originated in Scotland, wherein people would don masks and go door to door performing party tricks in exchange for a small amount of money or food. While this might seem identical to modern trick-or-treating, the key difference is that with guising the expectation is that the recipient of the “treat” will perform a “trick” first hence the terminology of “trick-or-treating” in the first place. Personally, I find the original to be far more charming.
Of course, some will question whether these traditions need to be kept alive; after all, cultures are constantly changing and the customs surrounding holidays are no exception. However, when those traditions are intended to ward off horrifying creatures of the night and evil spirits, I think it’s important that they be maintained. Looking at the state of the world I believe it’s safe to say that dark forces are stronger now than ever. Unless we wish to end up trapped in an unending nightmare from which there is no escape, then we’d better start carving turnips and lighting lots of bonfires. Of course, I do not wish for anyone to be forced to change their own unique traditions as ultimately Halloween is about whatever you want it to be about. However, next time you’re out late on October 31st, be careful– you never know what might be watching just out of sight, waiting for the opportunity to strike.