Halloween is fast approaching and the Jack O’Lanterns are everywhere!  It’s amazing to me how this holiday has grown from a simple childhood prank to the huge retail and celebratory event it is today.

The most iconic image associated with Halloween is, of course, the Jack O’Lantern.  But, did you know how these sometimes simple, sometimes elaborately carved pumpkins became associated with the holy day of All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween as it is known today?  There are many holidays in which religion seems to have collided with pagan symbols or icons to come together as one.   What does the Easter bunny, eggs and baskets have to do with the resurrection of Christ?  What does a tree adorned with lights have to do with his birth?  I find the marriage of these iconic images fascinating.

So how did an illuminated, carved pumpkin become associated with the celebration of Halloween?  It’s a long story, let’s start with All Hallow’s Eve …

Many of our holidays originated back when people celebrated the most important event of their life, the harvest.  For Americans, Thanksgiving is the biggest ‘harvest holiday’ celebration.  But in Argentina in February, it is the blessing of the grapes.  In June Bali celebrates the blessing of the rice harvest and in Greece it is the blessing of the sea.  For the Celts who lived in Ireland 2,500 years ago, it was November 1st, their New Year, or the Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’).   Not only did this day mark the official day of ‘harvest’ it signaled the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.

The shorter days and long, dark nights were eerie and forboding to the Celts, and often associated with death.  They believed that on the “eve” before the new year, the line between both worlds opened up and the ghosts of the dead would return to earth.  These ghosts would cause chaos, destroying crops and endangering the harvest.  To ensure the safety of the harvest, the night before the New Year, Celtic priests, the Druids, would build bonfires and make sacrifices to the Gods.  The villagers would often wear animal heads and skins, dance and tell fortunes to ward off the evil spirits.

Meanwhile, in Rome many years later, Pope Boniface IV established the feast of ‘All Martyr’s Day’ on May 13th to honor all Christian martyrs.  Later Pope Gregory III expanded this festival to include not only martyrs but saints as well and he moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st.  Hmmm, have we not heard that date before?  With Christianity spreading throughout the Celtic lands, it wasn’t long before the church attempted to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a church-approved holiday.  As has happened throughout history, the Christian holiday (‘holy day’) eventually merged with the Pagan celebration, with bonfires, parades, and dressing up as saints, angels or devils.

But, wait!  How does a carved pumpkin fit into all this?

Celtic legend says that a very, very frugal man, ‘stingy’ you might say, used to frequent the pubs in his Irish village, but when it came time to pay for his pint, he always had a convenient excuse for not being able to pay up.  Yes, his name was “Jack”.  One evening stingy ol’ Jack tricked the devil himself into paying his tab in exchange for Jack’s soul.  But when the devil demanded his payoff, Jack reneged and before the devil could do anything about it, Jack died.

Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven … and the devil wouldn’t allow him to enter hell.  His soul was cast out into the night with only a burning coal to light his way.  Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the burning coal inside … left to wander the earth alone, especially on All Hallow’s Eve.

To honor Jack, the Celts hollowed out turnips and created their own lanterns … the ‘Jack of the Lantern’.  And when the people, often children, would go door-to-door during All Hallow’s Eve to pray for the dead and, hopefully, be paid with soul cakes, they would carry their carved Jack O’Lanterns to light the way.

Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather’s bad.

You may learn otherwise about the origin and history of the Jack O’Lantern, but how could you not love this legend.  Although carved gourds have been used in many countries around the world, the Irish are credited with creating these ghoulish creatures, used primarily to ward off harmful spirits.  When the Irish emigrated to the New World, they brought the tradition with them, eventually replacing turnips with Pumpkins.

Happy Halloween everyone!

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References:  Encyclopedia Brittanica, History, Wikipedia, Wikipedia II, Instructables

Happy St. Paddy’s Day

As did so many Irish immigrants after the potato famine in Ireland, in 1930 my Dad came through Ellis Island with his parents and younger brother. Growing up as the daughter of an Irish-born father, I can’t remember ever celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.  Irish Soda Bread, corned beef and cabbage (we called it a “boiled dinner”) and Irish whiskey were served and enjoyed all year long. Wearin’ o’ the green?  Never heard that phrase growing up.  Shamrocks, leprechauns, pots of gold … where did all this come from?

St. Patrick’s Day was a religious day, the honoring of St. Patrick, who, we were told, drove the snakes out of Ireland*.   As the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, was born in Britain (ruled then by the Romans) in the 5th century.  As a teenager, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland to be sold as a slave.  Somehow he was able to escape and returned to his family, but through dreams he turned to religion and became a priest in Roman Catholicism.  Years later he returned to Ireland and brought Christianity with him.  st.patrickSt. Patrick is believed to have died on March 17th.  Since the 9th or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing this day as the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick.

But when did the day of St. Patrick’s death become this huge world-wide celebration with parades, green beer and Leprechaun emojis?

After the potato famine decimated Ireland in 1845, more than one million poor Irish Catholics escaped to America to avoid starvation.  America was, up until that time, primarily a Protestant middle-class society.  When the Irish arrived, they were looked down upon because of their thick Irish brogues and for their radical religious beliefs.  Work was not to be found.  Signs “Irish Need Not Apply” were everywhere.   Whether it was hatred or fear, the Irish were persecuted wherever they went.  Being portrayed as drunks and violent abusers, the Irish had to fight racial prejudice and stereotypes.  The road was difficult, but not impossible.  Eventually most became laborers and then moved into the trades.

But they soon began to realize that their large numbers gave them a bit of political power.  Settling in cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago, Irish immigrants started to organize and became politically connected, some eventually becoming politicians themselves.  Known as “The Green Machine” these immigrants began to be an important swing vote for politicians.  St. Patrick’s Day parades became organized by the Irish community in America as a show of strength, and became a “must attend” event for all political candidates (and still is).

Irish Famine Memorial--Boston MA

Irish Famine Memorial–Boston MA

As my grandfather would say “the Irish are natural-born politicians”.  Perhaps this endearing “gift of gab” as he would call it was a result of kissing the Blarney Stone.  As Irish politician, John O’Connor Power, defined it : “Blarney is something more than mere flattery.  It is flattery sweetened by humour and flavoured by wit.”  And who has those traits more than the Irish.

So now we have St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all across America and around the world.  Yes, even in London, England!

♣ The oldest celebration is in Savannah, Georgia, which is believed to have begun in 1813.  St. Patrick’s Day is the city’s biggest event, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors over the three days.  The Budweiser Clydesdales lead the parade and not only will Miss St. Patrick’s Day be crowned, Miss Teen St. Patrick’s Day will be crowned as well.
♣  In South America, Buenos Aires is actually home to the fifth-largest Irish community in the world.  Dancing in the street with live music and dance performances featuring traditional Irish bans and Irish rock groups.  No crowning of Miss Patrick’s Day here, they select the best “Leprechaun”.
♣  In Chicago, not only do they have a world-class parade and a crowning of the “Queen”, but they actually dye the Chicago River GREEN!  This tradition has been going on since 1962 thanks to Mayor Daley’s friend and head of the Plumbers Union.
♣  In Toronto, they hope to have over one million people lining the parade route.  The city has actually turned this event into a multi-cultural one, with over 32 countries represented.
♣  In Sydney, Australia, the Sydney Opera House as well as the rest of ST-PATRICK-DAY-PARADE-DUBLINthe city, turns green with special lighting effects.  Spectacular!
♣  In Montserrat, British West Indies, St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. Celebrated over 10 days, this island has different
events scheduled for every day.
♣  Munich Germany, London England, New York City, and, of course, Boston, the celebrations for St. Patrick are worldwide!!

For all the Irish everywhere, and those becoming Irish even if just for the day, I say . . .

                                                                          May the Irish hills caress you.
                                                                    May her lakes and rivers bless you.
                                                                   May the luck of the Irish enfold you.
                                                        May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.


P.S. * And just in case you were wondering, there are no snakes in Ireland.  Just saying!

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References:  Chicago St. Patrick’s Day, Fodor’s, History, Wikepedia