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© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 31, 2001
Today is Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve. In olden days, back in England, Ireland and Scotland, the lanterns for this holiday were carved out of beets, or potatoes, or even turnips. We Americans decided to use one of our native vegetables, the pumpkin, which, if you ask me, proved far superior for the purpose.
Once hollowed out and carved with a face, the pumpkin becomes a jack-o'-lantern. This term comes to us from an Irish legend about a man named Jack, who could not enter heaven, but who was not allowed into the Other Place either because he had played tricks on the devil. Jack and his lantern are doomed to walk the earth until Judgment Day.
Make no mistake. Despite our modern niceties, Halloween evolved from various ancient festivals of the dead. By tradition, ghosts may roam the earth freely tonight. Witches meet, too -- not our modern, respectable, SUV-driving Wiccans, but the real, pot-boiling, children-eating, warty-nosed deal.
According to my trusty World Book, which is the source for most of this, the ancient Celts of Britain and western Europe held an annual festival on Oct. 31 dedicated to Samhain, their god of death. Nov. 1 was the beginning of their new year. It was a gloomy sort of premise, based on the coming season of cold, darkness and decay. Samhain supposedly allowed the dead to return for the evening.
In our own hemisphere, an even more ancient tradition comes down from the Aztecs and Mayans, known as El Dia de los Muertos -- the Day of the Dead. But our Mexican friends have had the right attitude about it. The holiday is a joyous celebration of those no longer with us. The symbols of the day include skulls, and skeletons, and even toy coffins. Death is celebrated as a natural part of life -- a concept not much practiced in our own, more sanitized culture.
One of the smart things the Catholic Church did over the centuries was piggyback its holidays onto existing pagan traditions. In the ninth century A.D., the church established Nov. 1 as All Saints' Day. But the night before -- All Hallows' Eve or E'en -- remained the province of the spooky.
Naturally, with all the ghosts and devils roaming about, Halloween became associated with divination and predicting the future. The Britannica (hey, we're ecumenical here) says this holiday was considered best for predicting marriage, luck, health and death.
We Americans did not make a big deal of Oct. 31 at first, in part because of a Puritan tradition. (There is a mini-revival of that sentiment today, as parents here and there object to Halloween activities.) The great influx of European immigrants in the 1800s, especially the Irish, brought Halloween to the U.S.
This year's Halloween has an extra twist -- it features a full moon for the first time since 1955, and for the last time until the year 2020. This will be good for trick-or-treaters, and presumably, good for witches who want an especially striking silhouette as they fly on their brooms across its face.
There is no sense denying that on this Halloween, we are especially jittery. The events of last month have proved that our nation is more vulnerable than we knew. Just this week, our attorney general warned us to be especially alert in coming days, based on "credible threats" of a new attack.
So what place is there anymore for a holiday of ghosts and witches and skeletons, in a world with such real threats? The answer is, our world always has been full of monsters, including the big enchilada, the fate that waits for us all eventually. Tonight, however, we thumb our nose at Death. We whistle joyfully in the dark. We celebrate our monsters. This is how we win. Of all the traditional holidays, Halloween is the most defiantly ... human.
Join Times columnist Howard Troxler for an online chat about current events at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Go to tampabay.com/chat. If you can't be there for the live event, you can submit questions in advance, and a transcript will be available online after 4 p.m. that day.
-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.