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!

Before Halloween, there was the Day of the Dead in parts of the United States.

October 31, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that occasionally I write about issues part of the American culture that sometimes pop up during a speech and can be useful to interpreters in the booth that are not familiar with U.S. history or traditions. Every year I write about Halloween because it is one tradition everyone follows in the United States not widely known or understood abroad. You can go back to this blog’s archives and read the articles I posted during October on previous years.

This time, I decided to talk about a very popular and unique celebration in Mexico, and among Hispanics in the American Southwest: “El Día de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead).

The Day of the Dead originated before the Europeans arrived to the Americas. It was motivated by the view native people had of death and those who had passed away. Many celebrations varied from town to town. I will focus on the Aztecs because they were the biggest empire in what we now know as Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States, and because observing this holiday was documented by the conquistadors in the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún (originally titled “La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España” _The Universal History of the Things of New Spain_) (Florentine Codex. De Sahagún, Bernardino. 1793. Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy).

Originally the Aztec Empire observed the Day of the Dead holiday during what is now the month of November. In its current, form it was included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 2008. It was a religious holiday dedicated to the god and goddess of the underworld (Mictlán): Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl.

When a person died, their soul had to go through several obstacles before it could reach eternal rest. Mictlán (the underworld), was created by the gods of creation (Xipetótec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcóatl, and Huitzilopochtli) and it was divided in nine regions according to the manner of death. The House of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ichan) was reserved for those warriors who died on battlefield. Women who died during childbirth would go to Cihuatlampa; and Cincalco, home of the god Tonacatecutli, was the final resting place for those who died as infants.

The death of an Aztec was announced with chants and tears by elderly women. Next, the body was enshrouded along with its personal belongings and it was symbolically fed the most exquisite dishes. After four days, the body was buried or cremated. At this time the soul started its journey. For four years on the anniversary of the demise, friends and family members would hold ceremonial rituals at the site of the burial to help its soul on its way to its final resting place.

When the Spaniards arrived to Mexico, the holiday was replaced by the Catholic All Saints’ Day, to honor those who died as infants (Día de Todos los Santos), and All Souls’ Day, to honor those who passed away as adults (Día de los Fieles Difuntos) observed on November 1 and 2 respectively.

According to tradition, the souls of those who died come back to visit their family, and their living relatives greet them with an offering, on an altar, where they place a portrait of the deceased. They burn incense or copal (from the Náhuatl word copalli, meaning incense) an aromatic tree resin from the copal used as incense by pre-Columbian people during religious ceremonies so the deceased relative can smell it and find the altar where the family awaits. They also put veladoras (candles) to represent fire and light. They also help the soul of the deceased by showing them where the offerings in their honor are. Water and the person’s favorite beverage in life are on the altar, with cempasúchil flowers, the twenty petal flower, sugar skulls (Aztecs used real human skulls during their empire) and a special sweet bread called Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) named this way because it complements the sugar skull, as this bread is the representation of the skeleton of the deceased. Sometimes, cigarettes, paper ornaments in festive colors, and festive, funny poems about the person who passed away (calaveritas literarias) are also part of the offering.

This tradition is popular in Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro (Michoacán) and San Andrés Mixquic, a former island in the middle of the now dry Lake Chalco, in southeastern Mexico City (Tláhuac Borough) where friends and family members go to the cemetery, clean the graves, and set up the offerings, including food and drinks, before they sit down and spend the night by the gravesite waiting for thee souls to come. During the night, family members do an “alumbrada”, the lighting of thousands of candles that make the cemetery glow. Although the festivities at these two cemeteries are now touristic attractions, seen by thousands who go to these towns from all over the world, this tradition can be seen in most Mexican homes and cemeteries, and in the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States where Mexicans and other Latin American groups observe the traditional offerings, and religious rituals.

In the 21st century, many people have combined the Day of the Dead holiday with Halloween. It is common to see families participating in both traditions in both, Mexico and the United States.

Next time you are interpreting, and a speaker refers to the Day of the Dead, or somebody asks you if it is the same as Halloween, you can now explain what it is, and you can tell them the difference between them. Because the Day of the Dead is observed in many countries throughout the world, I now invite you to share with us the traditions and festivities linked to this season in your country of origin.

Trick or treat and America’s own monsters.

October 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Every year the Halloween season reaches more countries, adapts to its people, and becomes part of their culture. In the United States, a country where the decorations of our homes for this event are only second to Christmas, the main activity is called “trick or treating.”  Americans decorate their homes with fake spider webs, plastic monsters, and Jack-O’-Lanterns. That evening in every city and town in the United States children of all ages dressed as scary creatures, fantastic heroes, and beautiful princesses, go door to door asking the same question: “trick or treat?”  The adults answering the door respond by giving away candy to the little monsters.

Much of the American Halloween comes from old English and Irish traditions. Much is one hundred percent American.  Something is American (as from the United States) when it comes from somewhere else, it is accepted, it is assimilated, and then it is molded to the American taste and culture.  That is exactly what happened to our very own Halloween.  Let’s take the term Jack-O’-Lantern for example: It comes from East Anglia’s “foolish fire” known as “will-o’-the-wisp” or “Will-of-the-torch.” Will was replaced by Jack and it became “Jack of the lantern.”  “Trick or treating” comes from the old country’s “guising.”  Back in Great Britain and Ireland during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, children and the poor would go “souling”: Singing and paying for the dead in exchange for cakes.

Since the 1950s on October 31 American kids go trick or treating from around 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm.  This tradition has been exported to some countries. Kids in Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland also “trick or treat.” Kids in many parts of Mexico ask for their “calaverita.”

The Halloween tradition in the United States includes costumes of some very American creatures whose job is to scare our kids all year long.  Of course, universal monsters also show their face on Halloween.  Although Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the wolf man and the mummy are popular characters, we have our home-grown, and sometimes home-adopted, favorites.  These are some of our monsters:

The ghoul: A folkloric monster or spirit that roams in graveyards and eats human flesh.

The boogeyman: A mythical creature with no specific aspect that was created by adults to frighten children.

Matchemonedo: An invisible bear-god that congeals the plasma of those who are unlucky enough to run into this beast in downtown Chicago where it lives.

The headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow: the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head was shot off by a cannonball during the American War of Independence. A creation of Washington Irving, this creature rides tirelessly in search of his head.

Michael Myers:  A hellish creature created by filmmaker John Carpenter. As a child, Michael killed his older sister and now every Halloween he returns home to murder more teenagers.

El cucuy: A mythical ghost-monster from Hispanic heritage that hides in closets and under beds and eats children that misbehave or refuse to go to bed when they are told to do so.

The creature from the Black Lagoon: An American-conceived amphibious humanoid that lives in a lagoon of the Amazon Jungle where time has stopped. He preys on pretty young woman who dare to swim in his pond.

La llorona: A Mexican legend of a weeping female specter trapped in between the living world and the spirit world that ceaselessly looks for the children that she drowned. She takes those kids who resemble her dead children and those who disobey their parents.  La llorona is now a very well known creature and her tale is shared with all kids in the United States’ southwest.

These are some of the most popular characters who will undoubtedly show up on your driveway on Halloween asking for some candy.  I now invite you to have some fun and tell us about your favorite Halloween creatures from the United States or anywhere else in the world… unless you are afraid to do so…

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