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!

Legends and stories for the season.

October 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is Halloween time in the United States and many other places. Whether a native tradition, or an imported commercial scam, the fact is that Halloween is now a part of many lives.  In past years, I have used this space to talk about the history of Halloween, horror movies, and even monsters and ghouls.  This time I leave to others the task of looking for the links between Halloween and the Day of the Death, and I will not even bother to refute those who are going around saying that the Mexican ceremonies from Michoacán state have their roots in Aztec culture when the Aztecs were not even from that part of the country.  This year I decided to share with you five of my favorite ghost stories and spooky legends from the Spanish speaking world. There are plenty more, including many stories from the rest of the world that I have also made my favorites and I will probably share in the years to come, but for now, please let me tell you the following stories and legends, so go ahead, dim the lights, get under the blanket, and prepare yourselves to be spooked:

Ánimas Mountain (El Monte de las Ánimas. Spain)

The story tells us that a long time ago, during the Arab occupation of Spain, the King of Castile asked the Knights Templar to come to Soria, a village in his kingdom and help him defend the city. Unfortunately, this made the local aristocrats angry as they thought that they were brave and skilled enough to defend the kingdom. The situation got worse because the Knight Templars controlled Ánimas Mountain, a place reach with game and a hunters’ paradise. As a result, the noble Castilians had to find their food somewhere else. They did not succeed and lived a life of austerity while the knights were hunting and enjoying the abundance of the mountain. Soon, both groups met in fierce battle that left Ánimas Mountain full of corpses that were eaten by the wolves. The king intervened and banned them all from going back to the mountain turning it into a desolated sight with a decaying Knights Templar chapel.  It is said that ever since, on the eve of the Day of the Dead, the chapel’s bell can be heard, and the souls of the warriors come back to the mountain wearing their torn battle suits and leaving their grim footprints behind. For many years people were cautioned not to go to the mountain on the Day of the Dead’s eve.

Then, many years later, Alonso, a young aristocrat from Soria, who was in love with Beatriz, a beautiful young woman who was visiting the village, and staying at the Count of Alcudiel’s palace, announced that she was going to leave the village and live in France. Alonso, devastated, confessed his love and told her of his fear of losing her forever. To this confession, Beatriz replied that in her kingdom there was a tradition where the gentleman would give the lady a garment or a personal item to pledge his love. Immediately, Alonso gave her the brooch that held the feather to his cap, and asked her what she was going to give him in return. She told him that she would pledge her blue ribbon. She looked for it, and realized that she had lost in on the mountain earlier that day, so she asked him to go to Ánimas Mountain and retrieve it.  Alonso admitted that he was afraid to go to the mountain that night, but she did not change her mind. Finally full of fear, Alonso got on his horse and off he went in search of the blue ribbon.

As the night got darker, Beatriz heard noises, a bell, and horrible screams coming from the mountain until she finally fell asleep. The following morning she woke up to the screams of nobles and commoners alike. They were yelling that young Alonso had died on the mountain the previous night. She got out of bed to go outside, and that was the moment when she saw a torn bloody blue ribbon on her bed. When the servants reached her chambers to tell her of Alonso’s death, they found Beatriz dead; her face had with a horrible expression: She had been scared to death!

From that day on, the legend tells that on every Day of the Dead’s eve, the skeletons of many warriors can be seen fighting all over the mountain, and if you pay special attention, you can see the figure of a pale barefooted bloody woman yelling and screeching around Alonso’s grave.

The House of Don Juan Manuel (La casa de don Juan Manuel. Mexico)

There was a house in 16th Century Mexico City, the colonial capital of New Spain. It’s address: 94 Uruguay Street. It was the home of Don Juan Manuel de Solórzano, a wealthy man who was married to a beautiful woman who happened to be much younger than him. Don Juan Manuel was very jealous and he firmly believed that his wife was cheating on him. To find out who was her lover, he invoked the devil and made a deal: Don Juan Manuel gifted his soul to the devil in exchange for the name of his wife’s lover. Once the deal was sealed with Satan, Don Juan Manuel learned that his wife had been loyal to him all along, but it was too late.  The house still exists in Mexico City and it is presently used as an events ballroom. It is said by many that at night you can see a man dressed in 16th Century fashion who paces in front of the main entrance and approaches those who go by the house and asks them the same question: “What time is it?” and when the answer happens to be: “eleven o’clock”, Don Juan Manuel just answers back: “How fortunate is the man who knows the time of his death”.

La Tunda (Colombia)

Do not confuse the name with the Spanish word for a beating. It has nothing to do with it. It is said that for centuries, a horrific creature has inhabited the forests of Colombia’s Pacific coast. This monster has an insatiable appetite for human flesh and it prefers small children. Hunters and their families can be tricked by this creature at night when it takes the shape of a beautiful woman to trap men, and imitates the voice of a child’s mother to lure them into the forest where it holds them prisoners in a cave until it eats them one by one. The legend says that in order to keep them from running away, the creature feeds them seafood with special powers that paralyze the body leaving the victims totally helpless.  Many say that even now, especially in the Chocó region of Colombia, you can hear this motherly voice calling for its victims at night.

The Legend of Caá-porá (Paraguay)

There is a giant with a huge head who lives in the Guaraní Mountains of Paraguay. This huge being can only be seen in the most inaccessible parts of the mountains, but those who have encountered it, claim that he smokes a macabre pipe made of a human skull. Caá-porá will not harm those who go to the mountains to hunt for their own food, sometimes he even guides their dogs to the prey. However, this giant is ruthless with hunters who go to the mountains for the sole purpose of hurting the animals. Those hunters will face Caá-porá who will devour the animals before the hunters can get to them, spoiling their hunting trip. On other occasions, this big-headed giant can confuse the dogs so they cannot find any game, and kill the hunters to eat them.  It is said that those who have escaped the giant and made it back to civilization, come back under a spell and are never the same. Now you know, so the next time you go to the Guaraní Mountains and run into a hunter who may look bewitched, dozing or sleepy, you will have met a victim who escaped from Caá-porá.

Súpay (Argentina)

Also known as Zúpay, is a devil known since the days of the Incas. Súpay lives in the northern and central regions of Argentina in an underground cave named Salamanca. His home was originally called Supaihuasin (hell in Quichua).  This devil dresses all in black with a broad hat, gold and silver ornaments, spurs, a dagger, and a guitar. On Tuesday and Friday nights, it rides its horse until it finds some unsuspecting travelers. He asks them to dinner, and after hours of food and drinking, and once Súpay has entertained its guests with his guitar, he proposes a deal to his victims: their souls in exchange for temporary fortune and reaches.  Súpay followers visit his underground cave to learn his black magic and other means to hurt people.

I did my part to put you on the Halloween mood, now I ask you to please share with us other chilling legends or stories from your countries.

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…

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…

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with monsters at The Professional Interpreter.