Commentary: Halloween | KERA News

Commentary: Halloween

Dallas, TX –

Ask most people what Halloween means to them, and they'll likely say costumes, scary movies, lots of candy. But commentator Paula LaRocque says there's more to Halloween than that.

I'm always surprised when adults say Halloween is their favorite holiday. I've seen it as merely incidental, and for children. Ask those adults why they love Halloween, and they say: It's just for fun. Doesn't have a deeper meaning. Doesn't cost a fortune. Doesn't create family tension. You get to dress up! And you get to eat candy! What's not to like?

The polls are with those folks. Surveys show that Halloween is the favorite holiday for many second only to Christmas. One poll found Christmas among the top two holidays for 94 percent of respondents, with Halloween coming in next, at 55 percent. Thanksgiving was a distant third, with 18 percent. The poll also found that many plan for Halloween months in advance, and that 56 percent decorate their homes for the spook-fest.

As with some other holidays, we can thank the pagans for Halloween. And though we may see it as having no "deeper meaning," it was not always so. In the old Celtic calendar, October 31st not only marked the end of the fall harvest, it was also the last night of the year. Like our own New Year, it was a time to bid farewell to the old and embrace the new. October 31st was called "Old Year's Night." It highlighted demons and witches because the Celts believed that the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest on this night, and that the spirits of the dead might slip through that veil into our world. So for protection, Celts wore masks and costumes and pretended to be demons and witches themselves.

The Church, trying to discourage pagan beliefs, often replaced pagan holidays with Christian holidays. So, in the seventh century, the pope moved All Saints Day from mid-May to November 1st which made October 31st the eve of All Saints Day. Both those Celtic and Christian holidays celebrated the dead, with the latter focusing on the saintly rather than the demonic. But over time the rituals merged. And the pagans' demons, disguises, treats, bonfires, jack o' lanterns, and apple-bobbing persist to this day.

The word "hallow" comes from an ancient root meaning sacred or saintly or holy. Over time, the name Al-Hallowmass shortened to Al-Hallow-even, and finally to Halloween a blend of "hallow" and "evening." "Hallow" is also seen in the adjective "hallowed" which we know from the Lord's Prayer: "hallowed be thy name."

Halloween's bonfires and jack o' lanterns are also linguistically interesting. One early October 31st ritual involved casting the bones of slaughtered livestock into outdoor fires called "bone fires."

And the practice of carving faces on pumpkins derives in part from the Celt's tradition of warding off evil by placing the skulls of ancestors outside their doors. Also, there's the legend of "Jack of the Lantern" a villain who was made to wander after death with only a candle to light his way. Jack placed the candle inside a gouged-out turnip which in time became the easier to carve pumpkin as well as the jack-o'-lantern, one of Halloween's primary symbols.

Paula LaRocque is an Arlington author and writing coach whose latest book, "Chalk Line", is a mystery set in Texas.

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