‘Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.’
Mark Twain’s eponymous hero from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes a poignant description, and a fitting one for this time of year. The streets outside become mournful-looking and unsettling, as suspense broods around every corner. Ghoulish creatures lurk and, perhaps most disturbingly, clowns actually haunt our streets.
It’s that good ol’ time of the year again folks, when corpses ravage cemeteries as they awaken from their year-long nap just in time to give us all a scare. Modern day Halloween has morphed into what is mainly a children’s practice, during which the darling munchkins dress up as their favourite characters – which often are sadly neither hair-raising nor blood-curdling. They parade their Halloween ensemble down the street and disturb the tranquility of after-dinner TV to demand a trick or treat at the door; though no-one ever seems to choose trick and the kids prance happily away with their well-earned treat.
We’re all familiar with the celebration – but where does it actually come from? Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, is a celebration of remembrance before All Hallows’ Day – a festival honouring the saints. The eve marks the start of the three-day Allhallowtide – 31st October to 2nd November – a time to remember the dead including saints and all departed Christians. It is also a common belief that many Halloween activities were taken from Celtic tradition. For instance, the Gaelic festival ‘Samhain’ that marks the end of harvest season is thought to have been Christianised as Halloween.
The origin of the jack-o’-lantern is also a fun one, it has beginnings in an Irish folktale about a man called Stingy Jack. This man tricked the Devil into paying for his drink, and in an act of retaliation the Devil gave Jack a hellish ember. But Jack would not be fooled, and he placed the ember into a hollowed-out turnip which he used to ward off any future demonic encounters.
Carving jack-o’-lanterns was an activity brought to the United States by Irish immigrants, but traditionally the UK custom was to make them from turnips. Across the pond though, their native pumpkins were used as a cheaper substitute – meaning the humble turnip had its legacy lost – much to the disappointment of any turnip farmers.
There’s always a little more to the origins of celebrations we take for granted. It’s important to delve in and celebrate the forgotten things; the turnips of history. And there couldn’t be a better time for remembrance than now – when ghosts try to make themselves understood once again.