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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Between the Worlds: Part Three

Jack-o-Lanterns & Halloween Pranks
There is an Irish story explaining the origin of jack-o-lanterns: 
It seems a man named Jack was barred from heaven because he was so stingy and forbidden to enter hell because of his practical jokes on the devil.

The devil, angered by Jack's practical jokes, threw a live coal at him.  It landed in a half-eaten turnip in Jack's hand, creating the first jack-o-lantern.  (Early jack-o-lanterns were turnips as well as pumpkins and other gourds.) 

He is condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day!  

Closed out of hell as well as heaven, Jack is suspended between life and death,
and thus his jack-o-lantern is particularly appropriate to Halloween.

As a child in the southern U.S. I was told (teasingly) that the grinning pumpkin face in the window helped frighten evil spirits away from the house.  Although this may keep away the spirits of the dead, it seems to have little effect on the pranksters -- young people who become demons for a night and roam the neighborhoods making mischief.  Halloween provides an irresistible opportunity for the practical joker.  If the farmer's outhouse ends up in the creek, or your trees end up full of toilet paper, it was the evil spirits who did it -- once a perfect alibi for the real culprits.  Again, the limits placed on day-to-day behavior were weakened for a night.  today, most of it is of course harmless, although I do wish people wouldn't smash jack-o-lanterns!

Some once-common Halloween pranks, such as window-tapping, gathering vegetables to bombard house fronts and drop down chimneys, and removing carts and other belongings to faraway fields, were practiced in altered form in the United States when I was growing up (with the variation, of course, that we took things from the garage and left them in other neighbors' yards).  Soaping windows (especially car windows), stealing jack-o-lanterns, and "rolling" yards (adorning the trees and shrubs in toilet paper) were also popular.

Halloween Bonfires
Halloween bonfires are direct descendants of Samhain/All Hallow's fires of the Celts, lit in honor of the weakening sun at summer's end.  

The fires helped ward off the growing power of darkness and cold.  Perhaps they were meant to strengthen the fire of the sun by means of sympathetic magic. 
They were also a means of purification.  Even in recent times the ashes of the Halloween (and New Years) bonfires were scattered throughout the community to protect against evil powers and fertilize the fields.

Every hearth fire was first lit for the new year from the Samhain or new years bonfire. 
In ancient times it was considered an act of great impiety to kindle winter fires from any other source.
In parts of England, a large bunch of wood was gathered, dressed as a person, then burned under the name Le Vieux Bout de l'An, "the old end of the year."  Here again we see a similarity to Yule customs -- the traditional Yule log that burnt all night was originally also dressed as a person.  

In Scotland we find the custom called "Burning the Witch," which involved burning an effigy and continued well into modern times.  Guy Fawkes Day, named for a rebel who tried to blow up Parliament around the turn of the seventeenth century and celebrated in England on November 5, also involves the burning of a human effigy and is sometimes combined with the Halloween celebration.

These mock sacrifices represented the death of the old year.  Probably such sacrifices were intended to appease the spirits of the dead, for it was believed that the spirits might continue to disrupt human affairs throughout the year if not properly honored.  People often left food out on the table for the returning dead on Halloween.  (Another ancestor of our trick-or-treating custom.)

Halloween Superstitions & Divination Customs
As it is the beginning of the new year and a time when the everyday and the supernatural were believed to be in such close contact....Halloween was considered the perfect time for divining the future.
The divination traditions associated with Halloween are numerous and fascinating!

There were many superstitions involving mirrors. 
Some believed that if a young woman looked into a mirror at midnight on Halloween, she would see the face of her future husband or true love.  A smooth pond surface or wishing well reflection would also work!  There were similar beliefs about looking into a pond or well at dawn on May Day (Beltane).  Others might gaze into the mirror at midnight on Halloween and see their future revealed.
Mirrors and reflections were long considered magical and mysterious, because the reflection was associated with the soul of the person reflected; a mirror could capture or reveal one's soul.  Some of us are still a little superstitious about breaking a mirror.

Halloween divination usually involved apples, nuts, grain, or other agricultural products, combining the harvest aspect of the holiday with its magical nature.  
Apples were particularly popular, and the apple rites seem to be the customs most often found in the United States.  
(To the Celts, a perfect apple was the charm by which one might be admitted to the Otherworld and gain "second sight.")

Many customs involve apple peels.  For example, people would peel apples trying to keep the peel all in one piece; whoever had the longest peel would have the longest life.  

Young girls would peel an apple and then throw the long peel over their left shoulder, believing that it would form the initial of their future husband's name!  
When bobbing for apples, some believed that the first person to get an apple would be the first to marry.
Pumpkins are of course another agricultural product always associated with Halloween. 

Like apples, they are plentiful in October.  Also like apples, they were sometimes used for divination. 

Some ladies reportedly put pumpkins on their heads at midnight on Halloween, to see their future husbands!


© 1983, 2005, all rights reserved. 
This article is an original work of authorship protected under copyright law, and it may not be copied in
whole or in part without permission of the author and copyright holder.

Watch for the last installment of our article on the origins of Halloween and its customs -- part four features witches and black cats!

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