A brief history of Halloween
This Monday we celebrate Halloween, one of the most popular celebrations in America. Like other modern celebrations, the origins of Halloween are somewhat obscure. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, despite the connotation of “All Hallows Eve”, which has Christian affiliations, the origin is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, according to the BBC, which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end”. It was held on, or about Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 and kindred festivals were held at the same time of year by the Celts. Samhain is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish and Welsh literature. The names have been used by historians to refer to Celtic Halloween customs up until the 19th century and are still the Gaelic and Welsh names for Halloween.
Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the ‘darker half’ of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies could more easily come into our world and were particularly active. At Samhain, it was believed that the spirits of fairies needed to be “gifted” to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left for them. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes. Places were set at the dinner table or by the fire to welcome them.
In modern Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales, the festival included mumming and guising, the latter of which goes back at least as far as the 16th century. This involved people going house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for
food. It may have come from the Christian custom of souling or it may have a Gaelic folk origin, with the costumes being a means of imitating, or disguising oneself from, the spirits. In Scotland, youths went house-to-house on October 31 with masked, painted or blackened faces,
In the Celtic-speaking regions they were particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers. The traditional illumination for pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins. These were common in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in
the 19th century In the 20th century they spread to other parts of England and became generally known as jack-o’-lanterns.
Of course today, the standard fruit for carving into jack-o’-lanterns are pumpkins. Pumpkins lend themselves quite nicely to this custom and it baffles me how turnips could have been hollowed out in any similar fashion in past years. Pumpkins that are hollowed out will soon rot of course, but those that are only painted with the appropriate scary faces may last until Christmas if properly cured. Certain winter squash, including pumpkins, Hubbard, buttercup or acorn squash will last much longer if they are cured before being stored. Curing is accomplished by subjecting them to warm temperatures for up to two weeks,
70 to 80 degrees is fine. After that, they will keep at room temperature quite nicely and even longer if kept at around 50 degrees. You should eat your acorn squash first, followed by butternut and buttercup. Hubbard squash store longest over the winter, along with pumpkins.
If you want to make a pumpkin pie, keep in mind that most pumpkin pies are made from butternut squash and not pumpkin. Pumpkin flesh is generally too stringy to make a good pie, whereas butternut is just as sweet and has a better texture. Small pumpkins can be hollowed out and used as bowls for soup for a festive touch.