31 October 2018

All About Hallowe'en: Nonfiction Books

Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, Lesley Pratt Bannatyne
This seems to have become one of the definitive historical texts about Hallowe'en in the United States; Bannatyne was interviewed for the History Channel's A Haunted History of Halloween.

Hallowe'en originated in the combined customs of the Celts, who celebrated Samhain (pronounced "sow-wen") as autumn turned cold and darkness approached, and of the Romans who invaded the British isles. When Christianity appeared, instead of disposing of pagan rituals, Pope Gregory asked that the church find some way to incorporate the old rituals into the new so that people might be gently persuaded to accept the way of Christ. Both beliefs incorporated the concept of an afterlife; the Celtic philosophy stated that on certain nights (like Samhain), the barrier between the physical world and the spiritual world was at its "thinnest," allowing spectral figures to come through (Christmas Eve is another of these events, which is why ghost stories like A Christmas Carol were once popular at the holidays). This combined Celtic/Roman/Christian fall festival was imported to the U.S. with the British colonists, but it was not until Irish immigrants arrived in the 19th century that other elements, like the jack o'lantern, came to the fore. In succession, Hallowe'en became a holiday for divination of fortunes, for costumes and increasingly childlike parties, for pranks that grew increasingly malicious, and finally for trick-or-treating.

Bannatyne's brisk, good-natured narrative is supported by magazine excerpts and illustrations from vintage magazines and books, a great basic primer on the haunted holiday.

Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers
There is little overlap between the Bannatyne book and this book, which concentrates on certain aspects of the holiday; for instance, was human sacrifice at Samhain as prevalent in Celtic times as folklore indicates, or was this Roman propaganda (touching on the stories of the Wicker Man)? He also goes into detail on Hallowe'en celebrations among the Irish in which customs later became incorporated into the British Guy Fawkes celebration, keeping Hallowe'en as a latecomer holiday in England; how a night of fortunetelling for girls and women was also a night for "innocent" mischief by boys and men that was instead often malicious and damaging, which communities turned into a less damaging evening of fun by the acceptance of the trick or treat custom (and how scare stories like razor blades in apples almost drove trick or treat away); how horror films taking place at Hallowe'en set the stage for bloodier frights in costumes and haunted houses; about the Day of the Dead customs and how some Mexicans feel that the American Hallowe'en has diluted (or polluted) their Day of the Dead; and how the LGBTQ community has embraced the holiday. Since Rogers is Canadian, he also brings a perspective on Canadian Hallowe'en celebrations. A great companion volume to the Bannatyne text.

The Halloween Encyclopedia, Lisa Morton
This is an A-to-Z history of the holiday, from acorns (a fall symbol and also a means of divination) to zoos (which often incorporate Hallowe'en exhibitions, and everything in between, including cross references between holidays which once had rituals that are now exclusive to Hallowe'en (trick or treat, for instance, resembling the "ragamuffin" custom so lovingly narrated by Betty Smith in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where the children dressed in costumes and were given outdated baked goods and old candies by the local merchants, while also tied back to the custom of "souling" for All Souls Day, or the customs shared by both Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night and Hallowe'en in the British isles.

The nice thing about this reference is that Morton doesn't just mention old tales (like "Tam Lin" and "Tam O'Shanter") and rhymes, she summarizes the tales and prints the verses, and she doesn't just briefly chat about all the old fortune-telling methods, but mentions all of them and compares one to the other. The other quarter holidays, like Lammas and Beltane, are given entries, and even Christmas customs like mumming which resemble "guising" on Hallowe'en is included. She also mentions modern customs both good (the gay community's embracement of the holiday) and bad (Devil's Night in Detroit and other cities in which fires are set and property destroyed). The text is liberally illustrated with vintage woodcuts and old Hallowe'en postcards (sadly, however, in black and white rather than in color). This is a great text reference to all symbols and customs Hallowe'en and should be in every spook lover's library!

Here are more items you can read online:

The Book of Hallowe'en by Ruth Edna Kelley is a classic text from 1919.

The first account of an American Hallowe'en party was written by Helen Elliott for "Godey's Lady's Book" (the bestselling women's magazine of the 19th century). Here is "Hallowe'en" in its entirety.

Here is the story of a boys' Hallowe'en party in Hallowe'en at Merryvale by Alice Hale Burns from 1916.

29 October 2018

Souling and Other Old Hallowe'en Customs

Today Hallowe'en is best known for children "trick or treating" door to door or possibly going to a community center or church event, and adults having costume parties. The trick or treat tradition goes back centuries when the poor went door to door begging for food and were given "soul cakes." In exchange, the poor person would pray for the soul of someone who had passed on.

Soul Cake Recipe

  • 8 cups flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 4 yeast cakes
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange rind
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
  • 1/2 cup soft butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Dissolve yeast cakes in 1/2 cup of the milk. Make thin sponge by mixing yeast with rest of milk and 1 cup of flour. Mix thoroughly, sprinkle top lightly with flour and set aside to rise. Add salt to egg yolks, beat until thick and lemon-colored. Add sugar, rinds, and mix with sponge. Add two cups of flour, alternating with the milk, and knead for half-hour

Add remaining flour and butter and continue to knead until the dough comes away from the hand. Set in warm place to rise until double in bulk. Separate dough into four parts, roll into long strips and braid into loaf. Brush top with lightly beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with poppy seed. Let rise. Bake in 350° oven for one hour.

From The Holyday Book by Francis X. Weiser, S.J.

Soul cakes were also given out near Christmas on December 21st, which was formerly St. Thomas' Day.

While everyone now associates hollowed-out pumpkins with frightening faces as "jack o'lanterns," the original "jack" was a huge, hollowed-out turnip that looked like this. The jack o'lantern custom was brought from Ireland, where pumpkins did not exist at that time. Photos of carved turnips from that time were quite creepy!

At Hallowe'en parties in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was almost de rigueur to perform fortune-telling games. Tea leaves (back before the days of tea bags) were read, hot lead was melted and dripped into cold water to form shapes, women walked backward with mirrors in order to see their future husbands, and more. Read about these games here!

25 October 2018

Rudolph Day, October 2018

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

Autumn makes me nostalgic for days gone by: going to the Scituate Reservoir to gather autumn leaves, taking a yearly trek to New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend to "see the colors," buying fresh-picked apples at Highland Orchards, putting the summer clothes in the attic and retrieving the winter ones from the same place, your winter coat needing airing because it reeked of camphor. Autumn was new school shoes, and a new skirt and/or jumper or two (no pants allowed on girls back then!) and a blouse or sweater or two to go with them, and new knee socks for when the snow began to fly. By the time Thanksgiving was over it was time to seriously think about Christmas: what you could get mom and dad with your meager allowance, what you wanted to ask Santa Claus for (and was he real, anyway?), dreaming about decorating the tree and putting up the Nativity set and dinner with the relatives.

So I picked up this book I found in an antique shop a few years ago and started to read.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter, Edward Streeter
Perhaps you had to read it when it was published.

This humorous Christmas-themed novel was written back in 1956 by Streeter, who wrote two books which were later made into the much-remembered classic films Father of the Bride and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. I've never read any of his books, but if the description of them holds he seems to write about good-natured businessmen who like their lives to proceed in orderly fashion, nice fellows who love their wives and their children, but who are sometimes bewildered by them and the fuss that goes on around certain events. In this case, George Baxter is once again overwhelmed by the Christmas season. He wishes to spend less money and have less fuss, but there are traditions to uphold and people you don't want to forget, even if you can't make out their signature on a Christmas card or don't want to attend that one more office Christmas party.

So George pretty much just goes with the flow—or perhaps the inexorable tide or flood—as October leads into November, thence to December and finally to Christmas Eve.

Streeter makes some funny commentary on the Christmas rush we push ourselves into because it's "traditional," including the tipping of service employees (who apparently multiply at the holidays), going to office parties where they're just waiting for the boss to leave, and leaving one's shopping until Christmas Eve and coping with hysterical crowds in packed stores while churchbells ring out "Silent Night." (There's also a bit of pointed commentary about salesladies who misconstrue Baxter's shopping for his wife as shopping for Someone Else.) He also paints a vivid picture of New York City's hustle and bustle and sheer claustrophobic feeling, interspersed with brief minutes of beauty, like choirboys singing carols at Grand Central Station. I guess I just kept waiting for something unexpected or heartwarming to happen. (Nothing sentimental or corny, mind you; it's not that type od humor, but more like Saki or Thurber.) It didn't. Christmas went on as usual, his wife was tired out, but somehow they loved it all the same. So I apologize to fans of this book if I didn't like it quite as well as you did, as it seems to be much beloved.

However, my favorite passages in this book were these, which I felt kinship with: "In New York the fall was to the year what morning was to the day and youth to a lifetime. It was a beginning time, a time of adventure, a period when the city became like ancient Bagdad—a place of mystery and romance where anything might happen.

"In the fall Mr. Baxter felt ready for the world, vigorous, as after a good night's sleep. He was always full of resolutions and determinations in the fall, unperturbed by previous failures. It was then that one renewed business connections and picked up the friendly threads of social intercourse. It was the time when new plays appeared, new books were published, football games were played, and the countryside burst into vivid reds and yellows. Elections were at hand. Then came Thanksgiving and before you knew it Christmas had caught  you completely unprepared as usual.

"Then, right in the middle of everything, came that thing called New Year's Day. What was new about it? Mid-year's Day perhaps if you had to have a holiday so soon after Christmas. Certainly it didn't mark the beginning of anything, except, possibly, that by the first of January everyone was beginning to pant slightly and to think of winter vacations. To call this New Year's Day was like firing a starting gun in the middle of a race."

24 October 2018

Past Pursuits: Nutting

Judging by its appearance in old literature, "going nutting" was a prime pursuit for both boys and girls (while references usually peg this as a boy's sport, I have seen stories in which girls go nutting as well, although they are frequently left at a campsite to sort out the nuts) in the 19th century. Perhaps "city folk" could get nuts in the big markets that existed—Dickens mentions nuts being sold in the London markets at Christmastime—but others who went to the country or lived in rural areas with woods nearby preferred to find theirs fresh and free. Butternuts, a type of walnut, and walnuts themselves (also black walnuts, which are a different nut) were popular, as were beechnuts. In this poem, chestnuts were also harvested; once plentiful across the United States, the majority were killed by a chestnut blight that arrived via ships trading in Asia. There are such a thing as "horse chestnuts," but these are not the edible goodies that show up in the supermarkets in the fall. Those come from Europe, and there are still sold by hot chestnut vendors on the street, especially at German Christmas markets. Chestnut dressing to go in the Thanksgiving turkey used to be very popular before the blight, but is now fairly rare.

Once harvested, the nuts would be kept in an attic or root cellar and brought out as treats in the winter. As noted in this poem, the nuts provided pleasure twice, once by the gathering, then by the eating.

"Nutting-Time" is from the November 1883 issue of "St. Nicholas," its author listed merely as "H.I."

The month was October, the frosts had come down,
The woodlands were scarlet and yellow and brown;
The harvests were gathered, the nights had grown chill,
But warm was the day on the south of the hill.

'T was there with our bags and our baskets we went,
And searching the dry leaves we busily bent;
The chestnuts were big and the beech-nuts were small,
But both sorts were welcome to boys in the fall.

And when, in the ashes beneath the bright flame,
On eves of November, with laughter and game,
The sweetmeats are roasted, we recollect still
How fine was the day on the south of the hill.

19 October 2018


I haven't put up my Hallowe'en decorations in a while because we were either otherwise occupied (like hospitals), on vacation in October, or because I didn't have time. I decided I needed to cull out my stuff since I wasn't putting it up, to just keep what I loved. So that's done, and I have a nice, reasonable amount of decorations up without having to take all the autumn things down.

In the foyer.

The witch has a color-changing LED.

Hallowe'en tree. Mini-bat, Snoopy, owl, raven and big owl from Hallmark.

Kitchen pass-through. "I got a rock" ornament center, Harry at left, Renfield at right.

The glass pumpkin and friends. The lights are encased in plastic leaves.

Old vintage reproductions (cat, pumpkin goblin, cornucopia) with new (children at rear).

10 October 2018

Autumn Lends Itself to Poetry

"Poem Beginning with a Line from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"
Maggie Smith

Just look—nothing but sincerity 
as far as the eye can see—
the way the changed leaves,
flapping their yellow underbellies

in the wind, glitter. The tree
looks sequined wherever
the sun touches. Does anyone
not see it? Driving by a field

of spray-painted sheep, I think
the world is not all changed.
The air still ruffles wool
the way a mother’s hand

busies itself lovingly in the hair
of her small boy. The sun
lifts itself up, grows heavy
treading there, then lets itself

off the hook. Just look at it
leaving—the sky a tigereye
banded five kinds of gold
and bronze—and the sequin tree

shaking its spangles like a girl
on the high school drill team,
nothing but sincerity. It glitters
whether we’re looking or not.

"Merry Autumn"
Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872 - 1906

It’s all a farce,—these tales they tell
      About the breezes sighing,
And moans astir o’er field and dell,
     Because the year is dying.

Such principles are most absurd,—
     I care not who first taught ’em;
There’s nothing known to beast or bird
     To make a solemn autumn.

In solemn times, when grief holds sway
     With countenance distressing,
You’ll note the more of black and gray
     Will then be used in dressing.

Now purple tints are all around;
     The sky is blue and mellow;
And e’en the grasses turn the ground
     From modest green to yellow.

The seed burrs all with laughter crack
     On featherweed and jimson;
And leaves that should be dressed in black
     Are all decked out in crimson.

A butterfly goes winging by;
     A singing bird comes after;
And Nature, all from earth to sky,
     Is bubbling o’er with laughter.

The ripples wimple on the rills,
     Like sparkling little lasses;
The sunlight runs along the hills,
     And laughs among the grasses.

The earth is just so full of fun
     It really can’t contain it;
And streams of mirth so freely run
     The heavens seem to rain it.

Don’t talk to me of solemn days
     In autumn’s time of splendor,
Because the sun shows fewer rays,
     And these grow slant and slender.

Why, it’s the climax of the year,—
     The highest time of living!—
Till naturally its bursting cheer
     Just melts into thanksgiving.

03 October 2018


by Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow's wind, if it be wild
Should waste them all
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go
O hushed October morning mild
Begin the hours of this day slow
Make the day seem to us less brief
Hearts not averse to being beguiled
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

01 October 2018

"Autumnal Tints"

Walden Pond in autumn by Toby McGuire
This was Henry David Thoreau's final essay, edited during his last few days of suffering from tuberculosis. Published in "The Atlantic," October 1862.