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Halloween customs explained

October 21, 2011
Christine Weatherman - Community Columnist ( , Tribune Chronicle |

Ever wonder where the common Halloween traditions and symbols of today originated? Each year, those who observe Halloween go upstairs to the attic and pull out the decoration box. We hang up the witches and orange lights, carve the jack-o-lanterns and get the candy ready for the trick-or-treaters.

This year, I decided to do a little research into where some of these observances came from. I was surprised to find that many of the traditional symbols and practices of the season originated in other countries.

According to, Halloween ''was thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.'' Samhain, or the Lord of the Dead, was believed to gather wandering souls on Oct. 31. The Celtics thought they could defend themselves from the trickery and pranks of the spirits by dressing in costumes and lighting bonfires to ''ward off roaming ghosts'' of the dearly departed who hadn't yet found rest.

Eighth century Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as ''All Souls Day,'' a day to honor saints and martyrs, hence, the previous day was named ''All Hallows Eve,'' eventually shortened to today's ''Halloween.''

The end of October is celebrated differently in other countries. For example, in one of my college Spanish classes I learned of Mexico's Dia de los Muertos celebration - or Day of the Dead - held on Nov. 1. It still involves departed souls, but is much more of a joyful event. It is believed the spirits of the dead visit their families on Oct. 31.

Customs include creating a shrine in the local cemetery at the gravesites of departed family members. The favorite foods of the deceased are prepared and taken to the cemetery, as are flowers, candles and skull sculptures made from sugar. Relatives build fires and spend the night at the cemetery, talking and sometimes playing music that their loved one enjoyed.

As the history of Halloween is attributed to Celtic (Irish) customs, modern Ireland continues to observe some of the same traditional activities as we do in the U.S. Trick-or-treating is a common practice in Dublin. Groups of children with painted or masked faces gather and travel door-to-door asking village neighbors for apples, nuts or small presents to be used for a Halloween party. They also bob for apples and enjoy playing pranks on unsuspecting folk. Danish, Swedish and Scottish children also trick-or treat for candy in exchange for a poem or a prayer.

What about the other symbols of Halloween? Also from Celtic tradition, jack-o-lanterns originate from fascinating Irish folklore of Stingy Jack. Legend has it he was a ''miserable, old drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone.'' When Stingy Jack died, he wasn't allowed into Heaven because he'd been so cruel and, to stay out of hell, the devil gave Jack a burning ember to light his way, which he placed in a hollowed-out turnip.

There's more to the legend but, for lack of space, you'll have to look it up the rest yourself.

To ward off evil spirits, The Irish carved jack-o-lanterns into turnips or potatoes before they immigrated to America and discovered pumpkins worked better.

Whether you take the kids out to collect treats or dress up yourself for a costume party, there are plenty of area fall and Halloween-related things to do before the end of the month. There are several area corn mazes to wander through, the Fine Arts Council of Trumbull County's Ghost Walk today and Saturday and Warren's annual Halloween parade on Oct. 30.

If ghosts and ghouls aren't your thing, many local churches and organizations have non-scary events planned for the upcoming weeks. While some believe Halloween to be a pagan observance of witchcraft and demons, others think dressing up once a year to have a little fun can't hurt.

Either way, don't forget to watch out for those little trick-or-treaters.

Weatherman is a Trumbull County resident. Email her at



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