The Year of Words: Day 302, a very Pagan day

October 31st and this evening marks Halloween. Also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve this is perhaps the most changed date in the calendar since my childhood.

A carved Halloween pumpkin

The history behind the day is Pagan and dates back over 2000 years to the Celtic festival of Semhain. This marked the end of summer, the growing season, the harvest and the approach of the dormant winter months.

It doesn't take much of a leap in understanding to see why this was also seen in the Pagan calendar as the night which linked things living to things dead. Pagan belief thought dead souls could return to their former homes on this day resulting in bonfires being lit to ward of evil spirits.

This history of roaming spirits on All Hallows Eve is particularly strong in the West Country and Ireland and will no doubt be reflected in the costumes worn by trick or treating children this evening. As an aside this is the largest change I have noted in the Americanisation of our culture in over fifty years. When I was in primary school, trick or treating was unheard of, something that our American cousins did but nobody really understood why. It took the commercially minded to explain that to us.

Oddly though, the most Halloweeny of all Halloween symbols, the carved pumpkin has little to do with Halloween having been appropriated from the Irish tradition of Jack of Lanterns or just Jack o'Lantern

A number of versions of the Stingy Jack story exist in Ireland, but most agree that Stingy Jack had a drink with the Devil but didn't want to pay for it. He tricked the Devil into turing himself into a coin to pay for the beer and placed that coin in his pocket next to a silver cross preventing the Devil from taking his normal form. He let the Devil out of his pocket for a guarantee that he'd be left in peace for a year.

A year later Jack tricked the Devil to take the form of a tree. Jack promptly carved the sign of a cross in the bark gaining another ten years of protection and a promise from the Devil that when Jack died he would not try to steal his soul.

Eventually, Jack went the way of all mortal flesh and died. The legend has it that God was mightily fussy about who came into heaven and didn't want the rough sort who would drink with Old Nick in the first place so no place in heaven.

Similarly, the Devil wasn't best pleased about having been tricked thrice by Stingey Jack, not to menti0n the small matter of his earlier promise not to steal his soul. So no place in hell either, though the Devil was kind enough to give Jack a burning coal ember to light his way.

So Stingey Jack carved out a parsnip and placed the ember in it to form an improvised lantern. He has allegedly been walking the earth ever since in search of a home.

Irish migrants to America told the story on their arrival and integrated it into the American culture and bibbady, bobbady boo we have carved pumpkins at Halloween.

Bonfire night with a burning Guy Fawkes

Of course, the Irish weren't the only people to incorporate myth and legend into Halloween or to 'borrow' some of those festivities for other purposes.

The English did have All Hallows Eve bonfires throughout the middle ages which seem to have died out or at least were combined into an altogether more secular celebration on or around November 5th each year - bonfire night.

But neither the Irish nor the English were the earliest to combine the calendar in this way. The Romans incorporated their own end of Harvest celebrations into Celtic festivities as a bridge from the Saxon to the Roman era.

The Goddess Pomona

This saw the Romans move the festival to Pomona (the goddess of fruit and trees) to coincide with the Celtic festival of Semhain in Britain.

Her name hints at her symbol in Roman mythology and the mosaic of her shows them - apples in her hair. This fruit was the symbol of Pomona and we have been toffying and bobbing for them on or around Halloween for two Millenia since then.

Whatever you know it by and whether you mark it or not, I hope you have a peaceful and unbothered last day of October.

Given all this interest in the macabre and walking souls, it's no surprise that today's archaic word stems from that fascination with death and in this case Orphius (of the underworld). Strangely fitting today. As to the new word, I have been a logophile since age twelve, who knew I was also a wordie?


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