Witches, Ghosts, and Halloween

“Witches, Ghosts, and Halloween” – a report from the Marshall County Historical Museum (as submitted to The South Reporter for publication the week of October 30, 2013)

One day a year children can be anything they want to be. Well, almost. Depending on a household’s values or beliefs, the choice of costume for a child on Halloween has its limits. Some costumes can be too graphic, too risqué, too weird, or too “witchy”. There’s varying degrees of all of these things, and some costumes can, actually, be too graphic or too risqué for common decency.

In terms of “witchy”, I relate this to whether or not a child is allowed to dress up like the stereotypical witch or ghost for Halloween. Some children are. I wasn’t. Instead, my mom sewed elaborate costumes that were pumpkins, clowns, Popples, and princesses.

The Popple was especially nifty. For anyone who remembers the 1980s plush toy by Mattel, my costume even had a pouch I could roll myself up into and bounce around.

In researching the origin of Halloween for this article, I realized how unintentionally Victorian it was for Mom to exorcise the spookiness out of my holiday. During the 1800s, the holiday went through some interesting changes.

But, let’s start at the beginning. Halloween began over 2000 years ago as a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain. The day marked the end of the Celts’ calendar year, and the beginning of winter. They celebrated New Year’s Eve by wearing masks, lighting bonfires, and telling ghost stories.

The Celts also believed the seasonal change in daylight meant the living world was aligned with the underworld, allowing the dead to sneak over and communicate with the living. Most of the time, the dead brought news of future events, such as love, or an untimely death. I could imagine the conversation, “Do you want the good news, or the bad news?”

The adaption of Samhain by the Roman Catholics introduced trick-or-treating. Instead of outlawing Samhain altogether, the Romans realized they would have less resistance to Christian conversion if they just tweaked a few things. October 31st was renamed “All Hallows Eve”, but the official, revised holiday fell on November 1st, “All Saints Day”.

However, the free-food giveaway on “All Souls Day”, November 2nd, proved more popular, and inspired trick-or-treating. On All Souls Day, Poor members of the church lit hollowed-out turnips and wandered from house to house, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for “Soul Cakes”.

Between the 18th and 19th Century, Halloween came to North America with the Irish escaping the Potato Famine. It’s Irish folklore, often macabre in nature, that may have reintroduced Halloween to its “creepy” heritage of witches, tricksters, and goblins.

In the late 1800s, Halloween was adopted by the Victorians, who felt that mythology and superstition was a novelty. They hosted family get-togethers with costumes, playing parlor games such as Bobbing for Apples, fortune telling, and Pin the Tail On the Donkey. The ‘creepy’ icons of Halloween were watered down, or redesigned to appear ‘cute’ in illustrations.

The Victorians are credited for giving Halloween its commercial appeal, and for establishing a family-friendly, community-oriented holiday. Which is exactly how I enjoyed it, pilfering candy on Chulahoma Street.

Though I admit some lingering resentment for not being allowed to be a witch for Halloween, I found a compromise a few years later. I dressed the family dog, my “child”, as a witch, instead.

If you need last-minute inspiration for a costume this Halloween, the Marshall County Historical Museum has something from every notable era in Holly Springs. The collection includes Victorian Era gowns, a poodle skirt, kimono, and hundreds of accessories. The Museum is open from 10 – 4 Monday through Friday and Saturday by special arrangement; call 662.252.3669.

And if you’re looking for some post-Halloween chills, how about a few ghosts of Christmas’ past? The annual Christmas Tour is coming up with more than one “occupied” home.

Included on this year’s tour is the Chalmers Institute (1837 – 1857), which has been cited for the ethereal presence of a young boy. Also on the tour, “Polk Place” (1836) has startled more than one resident, and renovations at “Thistledome” in Byhalia revealed a plot of family graves, forgotten beneath a turn-of-the-century expansion to the home.

Remember to mark your calendar for December 7 & 8, 2013 for the 25th Annual Christmas Tour of Homes – the Museum’s sole fund-raising event to benefit future exhibit and educational programs.

For information about the Christmas Tour, go to our Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/mchistoricalmuseum

Megan Wolfe
About the Author:
I'm a San Francisco photographer and writer currently based in the South. My work is inspired by weathered history, interviews with locals, and wanderlust.

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