It all started with a turnip.

A long time ago in Ireland there was a man by the name of “Stingy Jack” who tricked the devil not only once, but twice, into not taking him down to hell. After partaking in a great deal of debauchery, Jack eventually died, and God would not let the objectionable young man into heaven.

The devil would not take him, either, held by his past promises and grudges against Jack. So Jack was forced to roam the earth, causing mischief and lighting his way with a lantern made from a carved-out turnip with a hot coal inside it. Concerned villagers, not wanting Jack to cause them any trouble, replicated his lanterns to ward him off. All sorts of foods – turnips, beets, even potatoes – were tried as lanterns, but immigrants in America soon found the pumpkin to be the perfect fruit for the job. And thus the modern-day Jack-o-lantern was born.

All around campus, Jack-o-lanterns are popping up on front steps and windowsills, reminding us that another Halloween is right around the corner. While children all over the United States and around the world are reveling in the trimmings for the upcoming holiday, this does not likely inspire great excitement within you. For college-aged students, Halloween seems like an excuse to party another weekend away, if perhaps this time in costumes. But I think Halloween deserves a chance to defend itself from the trivializations and commercialization it has suffered in recent years. Halloween has a rich history full of interesting and remarkable traditions, stories and rituals often forgotten by its modern-day practitioners.

Three ancient pagan festivals seem to provide the origins of what would later become the holiday “Halloween.” First was the Roman Feralia, a late October festival to remember the dead. Second was the Roman holiday of Pamona, a harvest goddess whose affinity to fruit probably explains the origins of “bobbing for apples,” which many people still indulge in. Third was a North European holiday of the dead called Samhain (celebrated on Oct. 31), where the tradition of dressing up in scary costumes to ward off evil spirits and ghosts began. Historians believe that the early Christians realized this and attempted to win over pagans to Christianity by placing the Christian festival of the dead around the same pagan dates.

And so, the three days between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 (“Halloween,” All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day) were set aside as a celebration of deceased Christians called “Hallowmas” – the combination of “hallow,” or the holy dead and “mas,” a shortening of “Mass,” the Christian liturgy).

The actual term “Halloween” derives from a corruption of the Scottish word “Allhallow-even,” meaning the evening before “All-hallow,” or as it would later be called, All Saints’ Day. When the pagan and Christian cultures melded, many pagan customs and traditions were incorporated into Christian celebrations and re-explained in a Christian light. Halloween became a meeting ground of witchcraft and religion, of ancient customs and new outlooks.

Until the modern day, however, even as trick-or-treating developed from the ancient practice of “souling,” exchanging food for prayers with the poor; even as black cats were called out as witches in disguise; even as women shaved apples, stared into mirrors and hid rings in mashed potatoes in the hopes of finding their future husbands, one aspect remained centered in Halloween: the value of community with both those still living and deceased.

Perhaps this is why Halloween today feels so hollow. In its commercialization, Halloween has lost that key communal undertone. Maybe the focus needs to shift from the collection of candy and the consumption of alcohol to the commemoration of our deceased loved ones and the congregation of our beloved friends and family. We can ask ourselves in retrospect, as a child, what made trick-or-treating so enjoyable: the candy itself, or the friends and siblings who came along with us?

But perhaps I am being too sentimental about the old holiday. As it always has, Halloween transforms when new cultures and customs interact with it, representing a great feature of the holiday. Recognizing how these different rituals and traditions affected our present day festivities, nevertheless, can help us appreciate Halloween even more. So, by all means, enjoy Halloween. But as you come home from your trick-or-treating or festive partying, be vigilant: In the dark of the Halloween night, you may just spot a lonesome soul wandering around the campus, turnip-shaped lantern in hand.

Michael Fischer is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be contacted at POSTSCRIPTS appears every other Friday.

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