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Halloween Customs

Carving pumpkins is a favorite activity this time of year. The story of the Jack-O-Lantern comes to us from Irish folklore. Jack was a farmer who had a reputation for being a drunkard and a trickster and one day, had an fateful encounter with the Devil himself. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree to pick some fruit. Jack placed a cross on the lower bark, preventing the demon's exit from the tree. Jack removed the cross, but not before coercing the devil to promise he would never take his soul in hell. Years later when Jack died, Heaven turned him away because of his transgressions on earth, so Jack had no where to go but to Hell. When the devil answered the gate, he wouldn't permit Jack to enter, citing a deal's a deal, but the demon did take pity and tossed out a burning ember. Jack happened to have a turnip in his pocket and he placed the coal in the big root to make the first Jack-O-Lantern. On the night when the dead may walk among the living, people light his way as he wanders the world. Sometimes he is called Jack O? the Shadows, or Death itself.

The thought of wayward souls walking the streets with the living promised some unappealing situations. Some believed the disembodied spirits from the previous year would return on that night to find a body to inhabit. To discourage and frighten the predacious spirits away, entire villages would dress in ghoulish costumes and engage in noisy activity throughout the night. As the disbelief in these aggressive spirits grew, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts and witches was regarded as a fun, lighthearted ritual rather than a serious self-preservation tactic. The Celts would extinguish their fires to make their homes seem cold and dark and undesirable to the spirits. Then they would re-light all their fires from a common source.

The practice of trick or treating is thought to have originated not with the early Celts, but with the early Christians. There is a centuries old European custom called "souling". On or around November 1 or All Hallows Day, early Christians would walk from village to village asking for soul cakes, or small square pieces of bread with currants. In exchange for these soul cakes, the recipient would say a prayer on behalf of the donor's dead relatives. In the 9th century, the popular belief was that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, so a prayer, even from a stranger, could help the soul pass into heaven.

About The Author
Wendy Brinker is an artist and writer in Columbia, SC.

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