While researching the 1920s era for my book, The Candy Store, I learned a great deal about the history and evolution of Halloween. What has become a multi-billion dollar industry in the last 100 years or so was in its earliest incarnation in the 20s, and was still mostly based on old country traditions evolving from Celtic myth and lore. I thought it would be fun to share some of the interesting things I learned about Halloween via this excerpt wherein Jett learns about the beginnings of the holiday. Enjoy.
Evenings found me teaching numbers and letters to the youngest Doyles. I was still having trouble knowing when certain ideas and customs were realized. Halloween was one such idea. I tried to get the little ones excited about the holiday, but they didn’t seem to know anything about it. Halloween was so big in the eighties, with costume parties and costume contests. There were ghosts and goblins, bonfires and bobbing for apples, and Henry Watson’s famous caramel candied apples.
When I asked about prepping for the onslaught of candy sales, Lillian didn’t seem to understand. After I told her about one of the parties I’d attended in costume, she understood the appeal, although she thought it sounded a bit unsupervised. I gave up trying to explain. Sadly, it appeared I was going to miss Halloween again.
After Mass the next Sunday, I asked Caitlin about her plans for celebrating Halloween. I slid into the car seat beside her. “Doesn’t anyone know about trick-or-treating?”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“You know, children going door to door asking for candy”
“I never heard of such a thing as that.”
Brigid managed to decipher my question. “You must be speaking of All Hallows Eve,” she said from the front seat of the car. “All Hallows Eve is the evening before Hallowmas, sometimes called All Saints Day. Though I don’t know what this trick-or-treat for candy is, unless it comes from the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes.”
“What’s a soul cake?” I asked. “Is it a Catholic tradition? I’ve only recently been attending Mass. There’s a lot I don’t understand.”
Brigid settled a fussy Kevin on her lap. “In some parts of Europe, groups of poor people, often children, would go door to door during Hallowmas, collecting soul cakes as a means of praying for those souls trapped in purgatory. The souls of the departed wander the earth until All Saints Day.”
Connor slid into the car seat next to her, giving Kevin a stern look, and the boy grew quiet. “There are those who believe,” he said, “All Hallows Eve provides one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognized by any soul seeking such vengeance people wear masks to disguise their identities.”
It was starting to make some sense to me. I hadn’t mentioned the idea of dressing in costume, only going door to door asking for candy. “Do you make or collect soul cakes?”
Brigid looked away. “The old Irish festival of Samhain, meaning End of Summer, is celebrated at the end of October where we would share food and have large bonfires. Most of these customs were left in the old country.”
Behind us, in the rumble seat, four little faces stared at us in interest.
“I want to collect cakes,” said little Erin.
“Oh, please. Can we get cakes?” Finigan asked, bobbing up and down.
From Caitlin’s lap, two-year-old Tara said, “I like cake.”
“Oh, no,” I said to Brigid. “What have I started?”