Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 653-A   October 28, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Allhallow's Even or Halloween, as we now call it, is the evening before All Saints' or Allhallows' Day on November 1st. Under a thin crust of Christianity the name conceals a much older pagan festival of the dead - - a night when ghosts, witches, fairies and hobgoblins of every sort were on the move. Then the country folk watched for spirits that crept hungry and shivering to their former firesides. Suddenly, lines of sparks march across the soot of the dying fire and the purring cat leaps up and hisses - - sure signs that spooks are around.

Halloween traces back to the prehistoric Celtic inhabitants, or Druids, of western Europe. Its celebration has survived longest in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, as well as among the descendants of their people in America. Halloween and May Day -- six months apart -- were the turning points of the year for these pastoral people of olden times. May Day saw the onset of lush pastures for their cattle. Halloween, with the harvest gathered and the fields bare, marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. In ancient Ireland a new fire was kindled on Halloween, or the Eve of Samhain, and from this sacred flame all the fires in the land were rekindled.

For ages among these Celtic peoples, Halloween was the time when great bonfires were built on the hilltops to scare away evil spirits. In Wales and the Highlands of Scotland this custom has lasted into modern times with family groups competing to have the largest blaze. Perhaps the custom of trick-or-treat started with boys that went from door to door in the villages begging a block of peat or other fuel for their fires. To ward off evil, these boys would run through the smoke or lie on the ground and let it roll over them. Modern youngsters merely make a wish and jump over a lighted candle. Sometimes, after the bonfire had burned itself out, the ashes were raked into a circle. Then each person marked a small stone and tossed it in the ring. In the morning if anybody's stone had disappeared or was broken it meant that he or she was fey -- and would not live to see another Halloween.

In the Old Country, for generations, youngsters have made their Halloween jack-o'-lantern out of a large turnip, such as a rutabaga -- or a mangle-wurzel, a large kind of beet. Cut into upper and lower halves, each was carefully hollowed out and holes punched to refasten the halves together with string. Holes for the eyes, nose and mouth were carved and a stub of candle placed inside. After dark this fiery face is popped around a corner to frighten people or hung on a pole to hold to upstairs windows. The first European immigrants to America found the Indians growing large bright yellow or orange pumpkins. To make a fine jack-o'-lantern it was only necessary to slice off a lid, scrape out the seeds, carve a face and put in a candle.

More and more, Halloween is becoming a harvest festival and a time for gay parties at which special Halloween games are played. It is not as gloomy and fearsome as in times past. In addition to black cut-outs of angry cats, staring owls and witches riding twig brooms, we decorate our homes and schoolrooms with Indian corn and bright autumn leaves, as well as pumpkins. We bob for apples in a tub of water and drink golden cider fresh from the press.

Throughout Halloween-country, both here and abroad, children seem to have an inborn urge to disguise themselves with masks and fancy costumes. For generations many merely smeared their faces with soot or paint and wore their clothes back-to-front or inside-out. Perhaps this dates back to the blue-painted Druids who, according to Julius Caesar, burned their victims in wicker cages.

Have fun !

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