In case you havenâ€™t noticed, Halloween is now big business. Cards, candy, and costumes are everywhere. Forget making your own outfit, there our seasonal stores that specialize in the occasion providing kids (and adults) with everything they need for a truly spooky evening. The roots of this holiday are no longer apparent, yet your immigrant ancestor probably celebrated the day a bit differently than we do.
The supernatural events you associate with Halloween are centuries old and date to a Celtic harvest festival known as Samhain celebrated on 1 November. According to Holiday Symbols by Sue Ellen Thompson (Omnigraphics, 2003), â€œthe Celts believed that the souls of those who had died during the previous year gathered to travel together to the land of the dead.â€ Participants in the ceremony dressed in costume to disguise themselves from the deceased and lit bonfires for their sacrifices. Black (death), orange (strength and endurance), and the harvest colors of brown and gold have their beginnings in this pagan event.
Thompson traces the history of Halloween in America to the Irish immigrants of the 1840s. Those early famine survivors brought their agricultural folk customs with them. A traditional Irish colcannon (a mixture of potatoes, parsnips, and onions) was part of the celebration. Small items such as coins, dolls, and rings hidden in the dish supposedly foretold the finderâ€™s future. Coins equaled wealth, dolls equaled children, and rings equaled marriage.
All of these events focused on adults not children but that gradually changed. Now itâ€™s kids who dress up as scary creatures not to frighten spirits but to collect sugary loot.
There are certain holidays that offer perfect opportunities to talk about family history with the younger generation. Halloween is one of them. From costumes to food there is history waiting to be told. For instance, each generation of trick or treat beggars dress up in symbols of their times. Thompson relates how during the Depression children looked like hobos, burglars, and other symbols of the economic poverty of the era, while during the 1980s kids dressed like their favorite television characters. Explore several generations worth of costumes in Phyllis Galembo, Mark Alice Durant, and Valerie Steeleâ€™s Dressed for Thrills: 100 years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade (Harry Abrams, 2002). Hereâ€™s what you can do to use family history as a perfect treat this Halloween.
- Show off photos of yourself and other family members in their childhood costumes. Talk about how you made that outfit choice and if you wore a store-bought or homemade creation.
- Feed their hunger for sweets by telling tales about the kinds of things you received when you rang doorbells.
- Talk about how you celebrated Halloween from parties to family traditions. Did you know that the jack oâ€™ lantern is from the British Isles? A legendary evil blacksmith named Jack walked the earth carrying a lantern to light his way. While Americans carve out pumpkins, Scots originally used turnips, the Irish used potatoes, and many English hollowed out beets. Once these immigrants moved to America, pumpkins became the vegetable of choice.
Each time you connect with a child through a childhood memory or a remembered tradition you have a chance to introduce family history. Filling in a pedigree chart isnâ€™t always fun for kids, but listening to a great story will get their attention every time.
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Maureen Taylor loves writing about photography and family history.
You can reach her through her website www.photodetective.com.