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Halloween: A Story and Some Trivia

I’m going to come clean and just admit, my least favorite holiday is probably…oh wait, I was going to say my least favorite holiday is Halloween, but then I remembered the uber-contrived Valentine’s Day, which is absolutely my least favorite “holiday”. Let me start over: I’m going to come clean and just admit, my second-least favorite holiday is Halloween.

Of course, as a sugar-addicted kid I loved getting dressed up in a costume and going up to random stranger’s doors and getting free candy, but it was never about the costume or the theatrics or the funny / scary / funny-scary decorations…it was all about the candy. And now, as a still-sugar-addicted adult, well, I can buy my own candy. But I’ve tended to stay on the “stay home with the lights off and avoid trick or treaters” line.

This year, though, things feel different. Anything we can celebrate seems like a reason to celebrate! I mean, Halloween is 3 days away and I haven’t decorated or bought candy or figured out which device I’m going to build to safely launch candy to trick or treaters from a 6-foot social distance, but I had INTENDED TO. And I sort of still have time, right?

Anyway, Halloween has a lot more nuance than I ever gave it credit for. I had planned on writing about “Halloween trivia” for this post, but then I read about Stingy Jack and Jack-of-the-Lantern, and as I like to say, a whole ‘nother blog post was born.

First, a bit of back-story: Halloween started as a pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced Sow-in, and which means "summer's end") held around the first of November. It celebrated the final day of the harvest and the crossing of spirits over into the other world. People in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France would ward off ghosts by lighting sacrificial bonfires, and, you guessed it, wearing costumes.

The Irish also brought us jack-o'-lanterns. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for their drinks, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to pay. Once the devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul.

The next year, Jack again tricked the devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. {Before we get to the rest of the myth, I need to pause and ask – how in the world did Jack manage to trick the devil TWICE? I mean, c’mon, that guy is purported to be super smart (as well as super bad) – so shouldn’t he kind of suspected Jack might not be trusted? I’m sure a version of the phrase “fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on me,” was around during the time of this myth.} Anyway, back to the story. While the devil was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the devil could not come down until the devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. (Personally, I think this is also unrealistic. I mean, the dude tricked the devil TWICE. Shouldn’t God have welcomed Jack and asked how he was able to trick him TWICE?) The devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them in windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets were used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns.

For anyone who might still be reading, here’s a completely different Halloween trivia fact I found before I became distracted by Stingy Jack: Did you know that Michael Myers of Halloween-movie fame’s mask is actually based on another famous face? (confession: I have never watched the movie Halloween; I hate scary movies). According to movie lore, the production designer picked up two masks from a magic shop. The first one, a clown mask, was deemed “scary” by the rest of the crew. Then he put on the second one, and everyone stopped dead and said, “It’s perfect.” The mask? William Shatner as Captain Kirk. They spray painted it white, cut the eye holes bigger, and one of the scariest movie villains ever came to “life”. I wonder if Bill Shatner knows this?

We all know that Halloween this year is going to be different. I mean, it’s on a Saturday, with a full moon, and not just any full moon, but a BLUE full moon. Also, it’s 2020. ‘Nuff said. I hope anyone who wants to celebrate will be able to find a way to do it safely, with joy and enthusiasm. And whether you’re trick or treating, handing out candy, or staying home with the lights off with your favorite Halloween candy, I wish you a very Happy Halloween from all of us at the library!

Stay safe, keep on keepin’ on, and take care of yourself. We will get through this together.

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