Halloween History and Traditions
Author: Teresa Fitzgibbons
With spooky Spanish moss draping from ancient oaks and places named Skull Creek and Bloody Point, come October 31, there’s no better place than the Lowcountry to make merry or mischief.
Halloween is one of the world’s oldest holidays. Over the eons, each generation has added to, or slightly altered, the customs that came before, resulting in a hodgepodge of holiday traditions. Knowing the origins behind today’s common practices can make this Halloween even more fun-filled, or fear-filled, than ever before!
Halloween dates back over 2,000 years to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. The Celts of old celebrated their new year on November 1, and the night before marked the end of the harvest and beginning of the long, cold season associated with death. On this night, the Celts believed the worlds of the living and the dead merged and spirits roamed about creating havoc. They honored this time by leaving out gifts and treats in hopes that the next harvest would be plentiful.
Roman invaders often left the customs of conquered provinces intact to help the natives assimilate; Romans timed their own day to honor the dead, along with the tree goddess Pomona, to coincide with Samhain. Pomona’s symbol, the apple, still resonates in Halloween celebrations today.
As part of the effort to convert pagans, the early Christian church turned many pagan holidays into church-sanctioned holy days. All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) were among them. During the Dark Ages, a rather primitive form of trick-or-treating began when children and the poor would “go a soulin’”—stopping at the homes of the wealthy, asking for food, ale, and money in exchange for offers of prayers.
During the Middle Ages, many people still believed ghosts roamed on earth on All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day. Those brave enough to venture out wore costumes—often animal heads or skins—to confuse wandering spirits. Another method to scare away unwanted specters was to carve a frightening face on a turnip or gourd and light it with a candle.
The American celebration of Halloween dates back to colonial times when communities gathered together to give thanks for the harvest and share stories of the deceased. In the 19th century, American interest in spiritualism piqued and ghost stories became common at such gatherings. Parties for children with games, costumes, and treats of the season began to appear around this time as well.
The early half of the 20th century saw the beginnings of trick-or-treating in its current form and school-sponsored Halloween parties. By the later half of the century, community festivals, haunted houses for charities, and Halloween farms became commonplace.
While trick-or-treating may still be the dominion of the young, Halloween belongs to people of all ages; baby boomers are among its most enthusiastic partiers. Today, Halloween is second only to Christmas as a commercial holiday and generates over 7 billion dollars a year in sales. Trick or Treat!
So, you’ve decided to host a Halloween party this year. Just go online, or better yet, stop at a local party store, and you’ll find a feast of frightening or festive ideas that will make your party the talk of the town.
The days of an “ordinary” Halloween party are passé; today, themed parties are all the rage. Consider asking your guests to work together and come dressed in creative group costumes: Imagine opening up the door to anyone from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to a band of gypsies, the Three Musketeers or the starting lineup of an NFL team. You can also choose an era, the ’50s, ’70s, or ’80s and ask guests to dress accordingly and dance the night away to tunes from that era. If your guests are all couples, why not try a couples theme and enjoy the evening mixing and mingling with real or fictional couples. If you really want to challenge your guests, perhaps you can try an all orange and black theme or tell everyone they must dress in costumes made only from items they already had in their homes.
A spooky ambiance is easy to achieve with bubbling fog (dry ice) cauldrons, spider webs, and black construction paper cut into scary shapes taped into lampshades that cast creepy shadows. If you want to step it up a notch, try creating a mausoleum atmosphere with tombstones and coffins added to your décor, or add a little gore with fake body parts and blood lying around in unexpected places. If you prefer a more lighthearted touch, a fall theme with scarecrows, Indian corn, seasonal fruits, and haystacks for seating may be more your style.
The sounds of the season are readily available with sound effect CDs providing ear-piercing shrieks, rattling chains, or howling wolves. Dim lights, candlelight, strobe lights, or black lights and songs like “Thriller,” “Monster Mash,” or “Werewolves of London” can help set the mood.
Traditional favorites like caramel apples, pumpkin muffins, and cider are to be expected, but why stop there? Try mixing up some “Witches’ Brew” (cider, lemon juice, and spices) or serve snacks in hollowed out pumpkins. You can get plenty of Halloween recipes or snack ideas such as graveyard cake or spider cookies from Halloween Web sites and cookbooks.
Obviously children’s parties often need to be less spooky. Local merchants cater to this age group with everything from decorations to goodies and games. Traditional games like bobbing for apples and scavenger hunts are fun. A lot of children also enjoy decorating pumpkins (no knives or sharp objects) or a pumpkin hunt—a take-off of the Easter egg hunt with mini pumpkins. Many of these games can be adapted for grown-up parties as well. Other activities like hayrides and haunted houses can be fun but require more advance planning.
Whatever age you’re planning a party for, be sure to send out invitations at least two weeks in advance and be very clear about any themes or costume preferences. Make sure you have a backup plan if your party involves any outdoor activities and that you have extra adult supervision if you’re hosting children. Don’t be shy about asking for help in decorating and cleaning up; in fact, you can make it part of the fun!
Just where does the term Jack-o-Lantern stem from? The Celts of old believed a man named Jack was denied entry into both Heaven and Hell and was doomed to wander the earth for all eternity. In order to keep away evil spirits, Jack put coal into a hollowed-out turnip with a sneering face. It must have worked, because eventually the practice was adopted by the Celts. Savvy “new world” settlers realized a pumpkin was far easier to carve for a Jack-o-Lantern—and a Halloween tradition was born!
When selecting the perfect pumpkin for your Jack-o-Lantern, look for one that is well balanced with a heavy base. A dark, even color is best, and avoid pumpkins with mold, bruises or flat spots. A fresh pumpkin, picked right from the vine is best (though in our area many patch owners concerned about snakes will pick them ahead of time). Don’t grab a pumpkin by its stem—this will likely lead to breakage, and picky pumpkin pickers will want their stems intact. It’s a good idea to decide what you want to carve ahead of time so you’ll know what size pumpkin you’ll need.
Before carving, rinse and dry your pumpkin. Begin by drawing a line around the top area you want for the lid; it should be no more than 2/3 the pumpkin’s diameter. When cutting out the lid, a boning knife works well and you should cut at an angle. When scooping out the insides and seeds, be sure to scrape the bottom well and flat; this provides a stable base for the candle later.
Numerous kits are sold in stores, and patterns are available online for those who want a detailed carving. Whether you’re going for a simple face or prize-winning pattern, be sure to sketch your pattern on paper before drawing the lines on the pumpkin. Use a paring knife for carving, and leave at least an inch between features or the edges may collapse. Some people prefer not to carve at all and draw or paint their pumpkins instead.
You may want to add a scented candle for a festive flair; glass candleholders reflect light best. You can also buy battery operated or electric lighting devices which may extend the life of your pumpkin. Pumpkins will dehydrate, especially after carving, coating the edges with petroleum jelly or soaking it in water at night will increase its lifespan.
Want to try something new this Halloween? Ghosting is a fun way to spread the Halloween spirit! It takes a bit of coordinating, but the fun is definitely worth it.
When “ghosting” a neighbor, place a snack bag full of goodies, directions, a ghost shaped cut out and a note that says “You’ve been ghosted!” on their front door. Ring the bell and run away! Your neighbor will enjoy the delicious treats and place the ghost cut out on their door to tell would-be ghosters they’ve already been spooked. Their directions should tell them to copy two more ghosts and directions and add them to two bags filled with goodies of their own and to place them on the doors of some unsuspecting neighbors. Once someone has been ghosted once, it’s not fair to ghost them again. You can start the week before Halloween and see how fast ghosting spreads through your neighborhood!
Coligny Plaza will celebrate Halloween on Thursday, October 29th from 4-8 pm. Activities include trick-or-treating at shops and restaurants, ghost stories with Yostie, giant shark slide and obstacle course, a haunted hallway and more! A family costume contest will commence at 6 p.m. and a pet costume contest hosted by Tail Waggers is scheduled for 6:30.
Sea Pines Plantation offers Halloween hayrides on Saturday, October 31 from 1-2 p.m. and 2:15-3:15 p.m. Reservations are required for the rides that include Halloween stories and a stop at the pumpkin patch! A pumpkin carving contest with refreshments, music, and games is planned for 12-2 p.m. on the 31st at Fish Island in the Forest Preserve. Call 842-1978 to make reservations for either event.
The Mall at Shelter Cove will host trick-or-treaters at participating stores on October 31 from 5-7 p.m. for children ages 12 and under.
Shelter Cove Harbour welcomes trick-or-treaters to Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina (Shops and Restaurants)
Saturday, October 31, from 2-5 p.m. FREE to everyone!
The Island Recreation Association’s Annual Pumpkin Patch with inflatable rides, entertainment, and concessions will be held at Shelter Cove Park from 4:30-7:00 p.m.