Halloween in America: The origin of the words we use and its history in the United States.

October 27, 2021 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

In our globalized world, this time of the year interpreters everywhere encounter references to the American celebration of Halloween, not an official holiday in the United States, but the second-most broadly observed event in the country after Thanksgiving.

Unlike other cultures elsewhere in the world, the American Halloween has no religious context the way All Souls Day and All Saints Day in Europe. It is not about remembering and honoring the dead like Obon in Japan or Day of the Dead in Mexico and other countries (Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, and the Philippines). There is no praying, washing gravesites, or setting special altars. Just like Thanksgiving, American Halloween is a secular celebration. Unlike the other events I have mentioned, it includes everybody in the country. Although the “official” day of Halloween is October 31, it is really a season, not just a single day when adults hold costume parties, very popular centuries ago, but scarce in the 21st. century. It is also an event for children to dress-up as famous and infamous characters, real and fictitious, and go door to door asking for candy with the formulaic question: “trick or treat.” Because of its Celtic origin, the festivity is understood as scary, but this is not the case; children and adults dress as movie and mythical monsters, but they also dress as heroines and heroes, angels, movie stars, animals, food, and even politicians!

People eat “scary” food, watch “scary” movies, read “scary” stories, and decorate their homes with ghosts, vampires, spider webs and pumpkins, but it is in the spirit of celebration. There is no fear, sadness, religion, or evil motives behind the festivities. It is an unusual event, and it is very American, but it was not always that way.

The word Halloween (sometimes spelled Hallowe’en) is short for All Hallow Even (All Saints’ Eve) and it was first used in the 18th. century (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) and it is believed it has its origins in the Celtic festival Samhain, when ghosts and spirits were believed to be abroad (Oxford Dictionary) held to celebrate the changing of the seasons from light to dark, which usually happens in the northern hemisphere around November 1. As part of the celebration, people would light fires, dress in animal costumes, and tell each other’s fortunes.

Everywhere they settled, early Christians tried to get rid of this pagan celebration and replaced it with a religious day. Pope Gregory III erased Samhain, and instituted All Saints’ Day on November 1, a celebration of Christian martyrs and saints. He also established All Souls’ Day for the remembrance of the souls of all dead on November 2. Later, All Saints’ Day became All Hallows Day, and the day before, October 31 became All Hallows Eve which evolved into Halloween.

When Europeans arrived in what is now the United States, they brought their traditions with them, including the celebration of Halloween. Influenced by many cultures and traditions, Halloween in the American colonies changed. All Hallows Eve became a time to party to celebrate the harvest. Many continued the European tradition of lighting fires, dressing in costume, and tell scary stories from the old world.

By mid-19th. Century, Irish immigrants arrived in the United States and they brought their own Halloween traditions, including dressing in costumes, asking their neighbors for food and money, and pulling pranks in the evening. Americans did the same thing and it eventually turned in what we now know as “trick or treating.” In 1820 Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” became one of the first distinctly American ghost stories centered on the holiday.

By the 1920s pranks had become expensive and costly in the big cities, and for this reason, cities and towns organized family-oriented Halloween celebrations. Once candy manufacturers released special Halloween-themed candy, modern “trick-or-treating” was born.

Besides “trick-or-treating,” the other main tradition of American Halloween is the carving of pumpkins into faces with a candle (now sometimes battery-operated) inside. The Irish brough the tradition to the United States almost 200 years ago. They carved Jack O’ Lanterns out of turnips as pumpkins did not exist in Ireland. This custom comes from the legend of “Stingy Jack and the Jack O’ Lantern.”

Stingy Jack was an old drunk who played tricks on everyone, even the Devil himself. One day he was at his favorite pub drinking with the Devil who offered to buy Jack a drink in exchange for his soul. The Devil turned into a coin to pay for the drinks, but Jack stole the coin and put it in his pocket where he kept a cross, this prevented the Devil from changing back. Finally, Jack agreed to free the Devil after he agreed to wait before taking his soul. Years later, Jack ran into the Devil by an apple tree. When he saw Jack, the Devil wanted to take his soul right there. To buy some time, Jack asked the Devil to climb up the tree and get him an apple. As soon as the Devil was up in the tree, Jack trapped him by placing crosses all around the tree. Then Jack made the Devil promise he would not take his soul when he died.

Many years later, Jack died and arrived at the gates of Heaven. Saint Peter knew who he was and because of all the bad deeds he did during his life, Jack was denied entry. With no other choice, he turned around and went down to Hell. The Devil was at the gate and he was very surprised when Jack asked him to let him in. The Devil true to his word, told him he had to keep his promise and denied Jacks request. Confused and sad, Jack was left to pace in the darkness between Heaven and Hell. As he was walking towards eternal darkness, the Devil felt sorry for him and gave him an ember from Hell’s fire to help him light his way. Jack had a turnip, his favorite food, with him; he hollowed up the turnip and placed the ember inside. From that day onward, Jack roamed the earth without a resting place, only with the turnip to light his way. The Irish called the ghost “Jack of the Lantern,” later abbreviated to “Jack O’ Lantern” as we know him today. When the Irish got to America, they discover it was easier to hollow pumpkins than turnips, and that is how this American tradition was born. Halloween as we know it today, is one of our oldest holidays and an important part of the American culture. Next time you are interpreting during this holiday season, and an American speaker brings up Halloween, you will be better prepared to do your rendition. To all my friends and colleagues in America, and everywhere in the world: Happy Halloween!

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§ One Response to Halloween in America: The origin of the words we use and its history in the United States.

  • Franco Gamero says:

    Another excellent subject and comments.
    When I left my country there was no Halloween, not even at the North American Cultural Center. Now it’s very popular. During Halloween I collected sweets left over by neighbors and workmates. On my travels to Latin America I would give them to poor children that were along the train, bus, routes. Many fellow tourists caught on the idea.

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