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Monday, October 28, 2013

Happy Halloween! A very quick history behind the holiday.

EDIT* I know that this post is not up to my usual writing and research standards. I felt like changing things up a bit for this one and more or less just do a stream of conciousness type of post. I know it's a really crappy article, but they aren't all like this.

Hey kiddos, how has everyone been?  Things have been survivable here.  I thought I would take a break from the science heavy topics of the last few posts and have a little fun looking into what is easily one of my favorite holidays, Moldy Cheese Day.  No wait, I meant Halloween.  Forget about the cheese thing, You never saw that.  I've got a lot to do for the holiday, so this is going to be a quickie.

According to Conservapedia, "Hallow's Eve, or Halloween, is a tradition originating in Ireland and celebrated on the evening of October 31, before All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day). Halloween continues to be related to the harvest and represents a participative ritualization not only of the timeless fears of uncertainty and death but also of the modern fears of transition from rural to urban life."  The entire article on the holiday is barely longer than a page and took about 2 minutes to read it.  Now then, according to Wikipedia, "Halloween or Hallowe'en (/ˌhæləˈwin, -ˈin, ˌhɒl-/; a contraction of "All Hallows' Evening"),[5] also known as All Hallows' Eve,[6] is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows' Day. It initiates the triduum of Hallowmas, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints(hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.[7]
According to many scholars, All Hallows' Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals,[8][9] with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain.[6][10][11] Other academics maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.[12]
Typical festive Halloween activities include trick-or-treating (or the related "guising" or "trunk-or-treating"), attending costume parties, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns, lightingbonfiresapple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.".  And this is just the first paragraph.  The article is about 12 pages long.  The concensus is that Halloween came from the ancient Celts.  So why do we have the costumes, the candy, and the fear about our children and pets?  (And yes, there actually is a skeptic side to Halloween, and I don't mean ghosts and goblins).  Lets see what I can find.

Costumes, Trick or Treat, and Halloween
Originally, during the Celtic holiday known as Samhain, there were no costumes, only bits of food left out to placate the spirits and Fae creatures that roamed the land during this time.  After a few centuries, people began to dress like these creatures.  I can't find any dependable references that show they did this to hide from evil spirits, which is what most of us have heard.  Eventually, the folks that dressed up in costumes began "mumming", or performing antics while in costume.  Think of it as a form of street theater, just not as presumptuous.  They would perform antics in exchange for food and drink, sort of like caroling during Christmas.  This eventually evolved into what we now know as Trick or Treat. (1) And if you live in a country that I don't mention (and I know there are going to be a lot that get skipped)  feel free to let us know what customs are native to your part of the world.  Like I said, this is just going to be a quick look at a couple of the aspects of Halloween.

Jack O' Lanterns
Most of us in the United States have at some point cut the top off of a pumpkin, shoved our hands into the gooey wet center, grabbed a hand full of pulp and seeds, and thought "Is this what brains feel like?"  I surely can't be the only one....Uh.. moving on.  The origin of the Jack O' Lantern is actually pretty interesting.  Guess what the original vegetable was.  No, that's a fruit.  That isn't even a plant.  Whoa, I don't think I'm coming to your house this year.  Before this gets strange, I'll tell you that it was the humble turnip.  Basically the legend is a guy tricks the devil, devil gets revenge, guy has to carry around a piece of coal in a turnip to light his way for all eternity.  And originally in Ireland, turnips were used, but when folks migrated to the U.S., pumpkins were a lot more plentiful, so they began to use those instead. (2)  These actually look pretty cool (turnips can get a lot bigger than most U.S. citizens realize)

Skepticism and Halloween
The reason for the, admittedly, poor history is because I really wanted to talk about the skeptical side to Halloween.  And no, I don't mean stories about teenagers being killed while skinny dipping in a lake, or the hook handed man, or the campers that disappear without a trace.  What I'm talking about is the urban legends about some sick bastard putting poison or razor blades in Halloween candy.  I'm not saying it's a bad thing to check your kids candy, or your own for that matter, and dispose of anything that you aren't comfortable with, like the half a pack of Camels and the empty bottle of Crown Royal from the guy in the bathrobe.  But when it comes to tales of people putting things in candy to intentionally hurt children these are false, according to and most other reliable sources. (3)  That's not to say that there haven't been one or two isolated instances, possibly even caused by these types of stories, but I once again could not find any evidence that this has occurred.  The reason I bring this up is that I have noticed that there are fewer and fewer children going door to door to trick or treat, and most of the ones that I do see, really shouldn't be doing it with out a younger sibling or even their own child.  A lot of this seems to stem from the fear mongering that local and national news networks do about the "dangers" of Halloween candy.  From what I can find, the greatest danger is cavities and maybe diabetes, for the extremists out there.  Of course you do have the minority of people that truly believe that the veil between worlds is thinnest on All Hallows Eve, and that the spirits are walking the earth.  With these people, you should just hold your tongue, walk away slowly, and wait until the holiday is over before resuming contact.  That or do what I have always done and sit back and enjoy.  Sometimes the way these people behave can be truly interesting, as long as it's not destructive.  Which brings me to another bit of Woo that crops up every couple of years around Halloween.  Satanic Cults sacrificing black cats on Halloween. First of all, the actual Church of Satan is actually a hedonism group.  You know, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  Then wash, rinse and repeat.  And I would recommend washing 1 more time, just to make sure.  The urban legend about black cats being sacrificed is just that, an urban legend.  According to Snopes, National Geographic, The Huffington Post (They are really pretty reliable, on some things), it is just a story.  If you look on infowars (pardon me while a puke for actually writing their name in a post of mine...o.k. ,I'm back), or endofthe, they will tell that it's true.  Personally, I will trust the slightly more level headed publications.  In years past at my work, they haven't allowed black cats to be adopted the week before Halloween, due to stories like that.  Now then, I'm not going to just wave my hands and say "Bullshit" everytime I hear one of these tales.  Instead, I will listen to them and see if they say any of the following:
1) It happened to a cousins friend, a friend of a friend, my uncles fathers college roommates niece... or any other way to distance themselves from the "events".
2)  It happened in a town in Montana in the 80's to a person.  If there is a complete lack of details, or if the information seems a bit hazy.
3)If it sounds familiar, but with one or two details changed.
All of these are normally signs that you are hearing an urban legend, or that the person telling it to you has a very short attention span.  People will distance themselves through other people that they know because subconsciously  it gives it an air of authority.  The lack of details is just that, no details.  Often it is vaguely plausible enough to seem reliable, but not so specific that it can easily be checked out.  And finally, these stories change and evolve over time, especially thanks to the internet and social media.  If you are on FaceBook, watch your news feed, and you will notice shocking stories making the rounds.  If you are my age, some of these are going to sound familiar because we heard them in the 70's and 80's.  They just change the location and the date, put some snazzy new picture to go with it, and then hit "post" and watch it take off. Most are harmless, but when the stories involve our children and pets, logic very rarely has any part in the decisions that are made.  I'm all for safety, but I feel we should let our kids go door to door and beg people for high fructose artificially dyed and flavored sugary concoctions  that make dentists everywhere rub their hands in glee.  Just be sensible and don't take them to the part of town that the cops aren't willing to go, go in large groups, and make sure one person is dressed as a traffic cop and another one as Dr. Who in every group.  Like I said, this is a quickie because this is one of my favorite holidays, and I have a lot to do before the 31st gets here. Until next time, be good, be reasonable, and be in bed by a decent hour.  

The Skeptical Okie

1. The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows by Jack Santino - Library of Congress

2.  Origins of Jack O Lantern  Author Unknown -

3.  Halloween Poisonings -

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