Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Witching Hours

The Witching HoursBy Micki Peluso

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This is a story of the origins of Halloween from olden times up to the present.

Strange shadows dart stealthily across sparely lit streets, as dusk settles heavily on quiet neighborhoods of tree-lined sidewalks and cheerful well-kept homes. The eerie scream of a screechowl,more likely the brakes of a passing car, echoes deep into the night. Looming ominously from nearly every window is the menacing glare of smirking Jack-o-lanterns, while the often nervous refrain of "Trick or Treat" rings out in repetitious peals. Halloween is here, and with it the shivery remembrance of things that go bump in the night.

Halloween, a holiday once favored second to Christmas, is not as much fun as it used to be. The last few Halloweens have brought tampering scares, such as finding razors in apples and poisoned candy. A sick segment of society has forced many parents to hold neighborhood parties, instead of allowing their children to trick or treat. The tricks have been turned on the children, ruining an a once magical evening.

Gone are the days when children, dressed up hideously, or gaudily beautiful, could enter the home of a stranger, and be offered chilled apple cider with cinnamon stick straws, and homemade gingerbread, or cupcakes with orange icing and candy corn faces. No longer can mischievous children creep up on neighborhood porches to toss corn kernels against the front door, or generously soap window panes, without triggering house alarms and angering guard dogs kept behind locked fences. The mystical lure of Halloween is becoming a commercial interprise for the sale of candy, costumes and decorations.

Halloween is a Christian name meaning All Hallows, or All Saint's Day, but the custom of Halloween dates back to the Celtic cult in Northern Europe. As the Roman conquest pushed north, the Latin festival of the harvest god, Pomona, mingled with the Druid god, Samhain. Eventually, the Christians adopted the Celtic rites into their own observances.

Halloween signified the return of the herds from the pasture, renewal of laws and land tenures, and the practice of divinations with the dead, presumed to visit their homes on this day. For both the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons, Halloween marked the eve of a new year. The Britains were convinced that divinations concerning health, death and luck, were most auspicious on Halloween. The devil, himself, was evoked for such purposes.

The Druid year began on November first, and on the eve of that day, the lord of death gathered the souls of the dead who had been condemned to enter the body of animals to decide what form they should take for the upcoming year; the souls of the good entered the body of another human at death. The Druids considered cats to be sacred, believing these animals had once been human, changed into cats as punishment for evil deeds.

The Druid cults were outlawed by the Romans during their reign in Great Britain, but the Celtic rites have survived, in part, to the present day. By the time these ancient rites migrated to America, the mystic significance was lost, and all that has remained is an evening when children can dress in outrageous costumes, and collect candy from obliging neighbors; yet a tiny part of every child still believes in witches, ghosts, and the nameless entities that creep about on Halloween, relatives, to their young minds, of the monster that lives under every child's bed.

In the ancient days, it was believed that Halloween was the night chosen by witches and ghosts to freely roam, causing mischief and harm. Witchcraft existed before biblical times, believed in by ancient Egyptians, Romans and American Indians. The Christian Church held varying opinions on witchcraft, at one time accrediting it to be an illusion, later accepting it as a form of alliance with the devil. As late as 1768, disbelief in witchcraft was regarded as proof of atheism.

Halloween customs varied from country to country, but all were related to the Celtic rites. Immigrants to this country, particularly the Scotch and Irish, introduced some of the customs remaining today, but there were many more that are unfamiliar. On Halloween in Scotland, women sowed hemp seed into plowed land at midnight, repeating the formula: "Hemp seed I sow, who will my husband be, let him come and mow." Looking over her left shoulder, a woman might see her future mate.

Apples and a six-pence were put into a tub of water, and whoever succeeded in extracting either of them with his mouth, but without using his teeth, was guaranteed a lucky year. In the highlands of Scotland in the 18th century, families would march about their fields on Halloweem, walking from right to left, with lighted torches, believing this would assure good crops. In other parts of Scotland, witches were accused of stealing milk and harming cattle. Boys took peat torches and carried them across the fields, from left to right(widdershins), in an effort to scare the witches away.

The Scots strongly believed in fairies. If a man took a three-legged stool to an intersection of three roads, and sat on it at midnight, he might hear the names of the people destined to die in the coming year. However, if he tossed a garment to the fairies, they would happily revoke the death sentence.

Scotland's witches held a party on Halloween. Seemingly ordinary women, who had sold their souls to the devil, put sticks, supposedly smeared with the fat of murdered babies, into their beds. These sticks were said to change into the likenesses of the women, and fly up the chimney on broomsticks, attended by black cats, the witchs' familiars.

In Ireland, a meal of callcannon, consisting of mashed potatoes, onions and parsnips, was solemnly served on Halloween. Stirred into this concoction, was a ring, a thimble, a coin, and a doll. The finder of the ring would marry soon, the finder of the doll would have many children, the thimble finder would never marry, and the one fortunate enough to find the coin would be rich. Jack-o-lanterns originated from Ireland, where according to newspaper editor and writer, George William Douglas, " a stingy man named Jack was barred from Heaven because of his penuriousness, and forbidden to enter Hell because of his practical jokes on the devil, thus condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgement Day."

A more serious custom was the holding of the General Assembly(Freig) at Tara, in Celtic Ireland, celebrated every three years and lasting two weeks. Human sacrifices to the gods opened the ceremonies, the victims going up in flames.

England borrowed many of the Scotch and Irish customs, adding them to their own. Young people bobbed for apples, and tied a lighted candle to one end of a stick, and an apple to the other. The stick was suspended and set spinning, the object of the game being to bite the apple without getting burned by the candle. This custom was a relic of the fires lighted on the eve of Samhain in the ancient days of the Celts.

The only customs bearing no relation to the ancient rites is the masquerade costumes of today, and Halloween parades. But the custom of masked children asking for treats comes from the seventeenth century, when Irish peasants begged for money to buy luxuries for the feast of St. Columba,a sixth century priest, who founded a monastery off the coast of Scotland.

From the north of England comes the activity known as "mischief night", marked by shenanigans with no particular purpose, or background. Boys and young men overturned sheds, broke windows, and damaged property. Mischief night prevails today, but is mostly limited to throwing eggs, smashing pumpkins, and lathering carswith shaving cream. The custom of trick or treat is observed mainly by small children, going from house to house. The treat is almost always given, and the trick rarely played, except by teenagers, who view Halloween as an excuse to deviate from acceptable behavior.

Children today, knowing little or nothing of the history and myths behind Halloween, still get exited over the prospect of acting out their fantasies of becoming a witch, ghost, devil, or pirate. It is still pleasurable for an adult, remembering Halloweens past, to see the glow on a child's face as he removes his mask and assures you that he's not really a skeleton. Watching the wide-eyed stares of young children warily observing flickering candle-lit pumpkins, is an assurance that even today, thousands of years beyond the witch and ghost-ridden days of the Druids, a little of the magic of Halloween remains. Children need a little magic to become creative adults; adults need a little magic to keep the child in them alive. So if, on this Halloween, you notice a black cat slink past your door, trailing behind a horde of make-believe goblins, it probably belongs to a neighbor. And the dark shadow whisking across the face of a nearly full moon is only the wisp of a cloud, not a witch riding a broom... probably.

By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes.

Open, locks,

Whoever knocks!



  1. Very interesting stuff there, Micki, I didn't know the Scots had so much to do with the holiday, but I knew about the Druids. Also, we called it Cabbage Night when I was young. Thanks for the information. And Happy Halloween!

  2. Thanks, Deirdre--haven't seen you here in a while--missed you!!

    Love, Micki

  3. I love the custom of the Scottish woman sowing and ploughing on the off chance that she might see her future mate that night--I think I'll pass on that one. Great post, Micki!

  4. YAY! I've finally found some spare moments from job to leave a comment! Have popped in to read, Micki, yet it has been a struggle to get a handle on my job. Am fierce about the students. Your post here has inspired me to take time in class and ask my students (multi-cultural) to share their halloween traditions. Will pass on the history you have shared with us here, Micki. Truly, a remarkable piece :} xo

  5. Thanks Sandy and Dody,

    Glad you liked it! No one comes to my blogs any

  6. I miss the days of seeing the home-made costumes. However, my son married the most ingenious woman and my two grandsons were Iron man and the yellow transformer last year...shhhh, please don't tell my grandson I forgot the name.
    This year she says they are Bert and ERnie from sesame street..and she sent me a preview..and the costumes are priceless...oh...the joy of having a mom who will take the time to make the costume than head to the Halloween Store and spend 50 bucks on one that is to small.

  7. I remember how far my sisters and I traveled to get candy. We used pillow cases, we collected so much. Our parents didn't have to follow along. I was in high school when things started to change. Thanks for the history. I knew some of it, but not nearly all. Nice to see you, Micki. I guess I'm one of the ones who relied on LinkedIn to get messages about your blog.

  8. B, Swangin. Thx for stopping by. I had six kids and I made all their costumes and one for me once whe I was a black cat in leoptards a sexy mask and ostrich fur on the neck wrists and tail--backin the days when I was "hot" lol.

    Linneann, Linked In has had me blocked for over six weeks because I have AOL e-mail and they have a problem with that. I just started getting tomns of mail from them today--goog and bad--more work to do now. Noone has been ot my site for weeks, except for one or two and some of my post have no comments. I have 37 followers--what's wrong withthis picture?


  9. Great post, Micki. Lots of interesting trivia about Halloween. Most people only know 'trick or treat' and a day to wear a freaky costume! I don't get notifications about your blog posts. It is becoming harder and harder to keep up with everyone BUT I don't want to lose contact!!!!!

    I am going to do some thought as to how I can get your post on Awakenings. There is no reglog feature on Blogspot:>( Will let you know what I decide...

    Happy Halloween!

  10. Hi Dear! I am nominating you in my Leibster Blog Ward! Go check on my post!

  11. Thanks, Sharla, I thought you were one of my followers which should give you automatic news of my weekly post. anyway, glad you made t tonight.



    Welcome--so nice you could come. I am honored by the award but I may not be allowed to accept since I already have that one. Let me know.


  12. Excellent informative article, I love the way you can take history and make it interesting. I HATED history in school. But I loved this article. Thanks Micki.

  13. Thanks, Lori, I started my jouralism career wriitng about all the holday tradition and then moved up to commentary. etc. Thx for stopping by.


  14. nice post, please check out my blog. I nominate your blog to liebster award.tnx

  15. I did check out your blog and thank you for the award but if you scroll down on my site you will see I already have that award and I don't think I'm allowed to have two--do you? I'm not too good understanding those awards either.
    Thank you for visiting and your blog is lovely!!


  16. Hi Micki, I put your book and the books that you reviewed on my to do list, your book held my interest and I will get that one first. Interestingly enough when I was in Sicily we were told that the children are given their Christmas gifts on Nov.1st and all gifts are considered gifts from their deceased ancestors. I found that ironic. It is so ironic because in my book "The Italian Thing" I mention that same thing.. I posted your blog on my fb page as well I hope you don't mind. I think people who visit will enjoy it as much as I did.

  17. Hi Pat,
    I'm so glad you stopped by. I researched a lot of legends for Christmas in Italy with St. Nick and my husband's family is 1st generation Italian and they used to go and collect money on November 1st, which is similar to what you found out. I have your book on my list too--as soon as I catch up on my reviews--about six left to do before more start poring in. I've created a monster!! I can't find time to put my short story collection together.

    Stop by again as my blog is a lonely place!!

    Hugs, Micki

  18. I went to Amazon to see if AND THE WHIPPOORWILL SANG was on kindle so requested it. Sounds like a very good book. After the pain it has to feel good to remember the good, funny times. Let me know if it's going to be on kindle.

    Your post has many interesting facts. I for one never really thought about the customs or where they came from. The only thing I remember hearing anything about was the Jack - O - lantern, and a man walking the streets with a lantern. I just didn't know why, now I do. Nice going Kathleen

  19. Hi Kathleen,
    Thanks for stopping by--I didn't know the one aboutthe jack -o-lantern!. My book is on Kindle for $2.99. I think you might enjoy this book. It seems to affect the people that read it deeply and on various levels.


  20. Micki, It has been a while but I always think about you. I am forever a follower and believer in your amazing skills with the pen.
    Halloween I pray comes to those on the East Coast this year. Hopefully parents will be sure to host a way for children to have this special memory no matter what the circumstances. I found the information about Ireland really interesting as I did not know any of that. Another great post Micki.
    Many more I am sure are to follow. Stay safe!

  21. LOVE your post! I have fond childhood memories of trick-or-treating all around my neighborhood without fear. Too bad that is no longer possible.
    Thank you for including the history of Halloween too. I didn't know about its roots. Fascinating!

  22. Thanks for stopping by, Rosemary and Sandy,



  23. I LOVED IT this was so amusing, and interesting, and I normally wouldn't care to read about history but this made it interesting!
    I love the Druids beliefs about cats, because I've ALWAYS believed that. Cats are way to smart, and they act very carefully unlike the Dog who reacts to emotion only. :):)

    The only suggestion I would have is to use a bigger font. You know us "old" folks we don't see as good as we used to...:):)

  24. Thanks Lori--I still haven't figured out how to enlarge the font. I'm going blind since I got this new PC because all the print is small everywhere no matter what I do--need to call AOL tech and let the adjust it.

    LOve, Micki