Trick or Treat Tales, by Maureen Taylor

jack olantern.jpgIn case you haven’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), “the Celts believed that the souls of those who had died during the previous year gathered to travel together to the land of the dead.” 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 finder’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 it’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 Steele’s Dressed for Thrills: 100 years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade (Harry Abrams, 2002). Here’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 o’ 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 isn’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

2 thoughts on “Trick or Treat Tales, by Maureen Taylor

  1. My Grandfather Henry Earl Williams Sr. said that since he was born on a day that every one selabrated which was Lincons birthday, that he would die on a day that every one selabrated. He died on Hallowen night when every one started trick or treting witch was October 31, 1960.

  2. I don’t think it would a good idea to tell my grandchildren what we did on Halloween. Trick or Treating was only at it’s beginning, and some people took a chance on the Trick part. My mother supplied us with wax candles for waxing windows, peas and pea shooters, etc. as this was the only time she gave a blind eye to general naughtiness.

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