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!

Halloween’s traditional foods around the world.

October 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Dear friends and colleagues:

Every year, Halloween is celebrated in more countries around the world and the interpreters’ booth is no exception. During the last week of October our conversations between assignments turn to traditions from our different countries, and many include food. I have been fortunate to try many wonderful dishes served during this season in different corners of our planet, and I thank my many friends, colleagues, and even clients who have contributed to my cultural-culinary education. This is a list of some of the most popular, and tastier Halloween foods, that came from other nations and traditions to the United States:

Pan de muerto (Mexico).  Traditionally baked in the days leading to the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), ‘bread of the dead’ is a soft, sweet bread roll. It’s sometimes decorated with bone-shaped dough on top and is eaten in Mexican homes and next to a loved one’s grave to celebrate their memory. Depending on the region, it can also be flavored with orange-flower water, anise seeds or other ingredients.

Pão-por-Deus (Portugal).  Pão-de-Deus (‘bread of God’) or Soul Cake is a small, round treat. People usually eat it on All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos-os-Santos) on 1 November. The ingredients are: raisins, currants and spices such as ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. In Portugal, people give pão-de-Deus to children and the poor, who go from door-to-door singing and saying prayers for the dead. Soul cakes are also shared in other countries. Some say this practice might be the origin of trick-or-treating.

Dolci dei morti (Italy).  Often called fave dei morti (‘beans of the dead’), Italian families eat these little chewy biscuits on All Souls’ Day (Commemorazione dei defunti) on 2 November. The ingredients: Ground almonds, pine nuts, cinnamon and lemon zest.

Huesos de santo (Spain).  Long, white, tube-shaped ‘saint’s bones’ are made from marzipan (an almond paste). Spanish people eat them around All Saints’ Day or Día de Todos los Santos. Expect various fillings and plenty of syrup covering them.

Candy apples (United States) / Toffee apples (United Kingdom).  Although store packaged candy has taken over in America, perhaps the most well-known traditional Halloween snack is the candy apple (in the US) or toffee apple (in the UK). The apples have a sugar syrup coating, sometimes with an extra layer or nuts or other sweet decorations.

Guagua de pan (Ecuador).  These “bread babies” are sweet rolls molded and decorated to look like small children. They are part of the Day of the Dead tradition, often made of wheat and sometimes filled with sweet jelly. They may be exchanged as gifts between families and friends or used ceremonially.

Soul cakes (England).  These sweet, round cakes were traditionally given out in England and Ireland on All Saints Day or All Souls’ Day during the Middle Ages to those who went door-to-door saying prayers for the dead in what may be the forerunner to today’s trick-or-treating. They can be made with raisins and currents and aromatic spices like allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.

Barm Brack (Ireland). On All Hallows’ Eve, you might enjoy some freshly baked barm brack. It is also called Bairín Breac, Barmbrack or often shortened to brack, is a yeasted bread with added sultanas and raisins. Usually sold in flattened rounds, it is often served toasted with butter along with a cup of tea in the afternoon. The dough is sweeter than sandwich bread, but not as rich as cake. The sultanas and raisins add flavor and texture to the final product. The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolize going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day. Commercially produced barmbracks for the Halloween market still include a toy ring.

Colcannon (Ireland).  It is traditionally made from mashed potatoes and kale (or cabbage), with milk, butter, salt and pepper. It can contain other ingredients such as scallions, leeks, onions and chives. There are many regional variations of this dish. It is often eaten with boiled ham or bacon. An Irish Halloween tradition is to serve colcannon with a ring and a thimble hidden in the dish. Prizes of small coins such as threepenny or sixpenny bits were also concealed inside the dish.

Fiambre (Guatemala).  It is a Guatemalan dish prepared once a year on November 1st for the Dia de los Santos or All Saints Day, a celebration that takes place one day before the Dia de los Muertos. Each family has their own recipe for fiambre which is usually passed on from generation to generation. There are different kinds: white, red and divoriciado in which all the ingredients are left separated and each person picks what they want. Fiambre must be prepared at least one day before serving and marinated in sauce blend of vinegar and other ingredients called the caldillo. Many people add fish and even shrimp. The day you wish to serve the fiambre, place a lettuce leaf on a plate, arrange a layer of the veggie mixture and then add a layer of the meats and cheeses. Repeat at least once and decorate with pimientos, sliced cheese, asparagus, baby corn, radishes, olives, and boiled eggs. Serve chilled.

Please share your traditional food for Halloween, All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead, and I hope you enjoy your family recipe, celebrate your cultural heritage, and honor those who are no longer with you. Happy Halloween!

Trick or treat and America’s own monsters.

October 30, 2014 § 3 Comments

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 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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