by Roseanna M. White
At this time of year, you can't walk down the streets of America without seeing carved pumpkins, autumn-colored mums, corn husks, scarecrows, and hay bales adorning porches, stoops, and store windows. There will be bats and cobwebs and skeletons. Spiders and ghouls and goblins.
And wherever Halloween traditions can be found, you'll also find those who stridently oppose them. It's always been that way in America, all the way back to the days of the Puritans. But have you ever paused to wonder where some of our late-fall traditions come from--and what those Puritans did in their stead?
The Puritans didn't believe in esteeming any one day above another. They didn't celebrate Christmas, much less holidays like Halloween that are rooted in paganism. But they were still people, and people still like to get together and have a good time.
A staple of New England life in the colonial days was the corn husking bee. If ever you've read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, you've seen one of these events described. In order to make the work of husking corn light, the neighborhood would gather together and have a bee, a contest to see who could husk the most. It was especially popular with young people . . . perhaps because of a uniquely American tradition.
At these events, the most sought-after (and perhaps feared, by some) item to find was an ear of red corn. If a young man happened to find one while husking, it entitled him to a kiss from whichever young woman he chose. And if a young woman found one, she could give it to the young man of her choice so he could claim said kiss. This was a tradition that lasted well into the 19th century, one that was responsible for quite a few courtships and marriages . . . and broken hearts, too.
But in the southern colonies, settled largely by people who adhered to the Church of England, celebrating holidays was not only acceptable, it was embraced. And one of the traditions that came to America along with those first colonists was Halloween, and the jack-o-lantern.
The story of the jack-o-lantern dates back centuries in Ireland. Before Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Druids ruled the day. In their calendar, November 1 began the new year, and they believed that the hours between the old year and the new were when the line between physical and spiritual were most blurred. That this night, October 31, was when faeries and ghouls and ghosts roamed freely about the world. Some welcomed them, and bade them tell the future of the coming year. Some feared them and tried to scare them away. This was especially true after Christianity gained a following on the islands. The two religions had their clashes, and the general populace wasn't sure how to reconcile new knowledge with old. The result is a bit of a blend. Because these people knew that spirits prowled on the day now called All Hallow's Eve (the night before All Hallow's Day--aka All Saints Day). But they also knew they couldn't have anything to do with them. So how to scare them away? One answer was jack-o-lanterns.
You see, the story goes that there was a man named Stingy Jack, who convinced the devil one night to have a drink with him. They hadn't any money to pay for this drink, so Jack convinced the devil (who apparently wasn't very wily) to turn himself into a coin with which they could pay. The devil obliged. But rather than pay the barkeep, ol' Jack was tempted by that coin and decided to pocket it instead. It landed in his pocket beside a silver cross he kept there, and the power of the cross kept the devil from changing out of his new form. Jack eventually let him go, but only with a promise that he wouldn't bother him for a year. Well, the next year Jack again out-smarted the devil, and after convincing him to climb a tree for an apple, trapped him in that tree with another cross. He wouldn't let him down until the devil promised never to claim his soul. Soon Jack died. God wouldn't let such a scoundrel into heaven, of course, but the devil kept his word too and didn't take him into hell. Instead, he sent him out to roam the world with nothing but an ember to guide him, housed in a carved turnip.
The people of Ireland wanted to make sure Jack and other roaming spirits didn't bother them, so they carved their turnips and beets into scary faces and put an ember inside to frighten away that old Jack of the Lantern.
In America, people soon discovered that the native pumpkin was perfect for this centuries-old tradition, and the pumpkin jack-o-lantern joined harvest festivities. Another scene from The Witch of Blackbird Pond has the elders being horrified when some disrespectful young people dare to put a jack-o-lantern out. For a while the tradition faded away, but it returned with new popularity when the Irish immigrated in such huge numbers during the 19th century.
Whether you put jack-o-lanterns or corn on your porch, you have to admit this a time of year filled with beautiful, vibrant colors . . . and traditions rich with harvest.
Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. The Lost Heiress is Roseanna’s tenth published book. Her novels range from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her new British series. She lives with her family in West Virginia. Learn more at www.RoseannaMWhite.com