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YOUR HISTORY: Those old, scary traditions

What was Halloween like in 1909? Answering that question is the challenge we face in developing an authentic heritage Halloween program for Mackin House this year.

What was Halloween like in 1909? Answering that question is the challenge we face in developing an authentic heritage Halloween program for Mackin House this year.

Halloween has become a popular and fun celebration but it has a complicated past laced with grim superstitions. Today, we celebrate it on the night of Oct. 31 but there are a number of different notions of how this came about.

The ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain was a celebration of the end of the harvest season, a time to take stock of supplies and get ready for winter. On Oct. 31, the ancients believed the boundaries between the world of the living and dead overlapped and there was a chance that the deceased might come back to wreak havoc. Thus, they started bonfires to scare off the dead ("bon" indicating bones of either animals or humans in the fire), attract bats and keep the insects away (very practical). Costumes would be used to mimic, appease or frighten the unleashed spirits of the dead.

Because nothing of these customs was actually recorded, there are many different stories.

Another version of Samhain characterizes it as the principal feast day of the year beginning on Nov. 1. The spirits of those who had died during the previous 12 months were granted access into the "otherworld" during this celebration. Food and drink were left out to comfort the wandering spirits.

In truth, scholars know little about the actual practices and much of what we read is speculation.

Trick-or-treating, a cornerstone of Halloween custom in North America, resembles the medieval practice of "souling," wherein poor people would go door to door on Nov. 1 (Hallowmas) begging for food in return for offering prayers for the dead, which would be said on All Souls Day, Nov. 2.

This custom originated in Ireland and Britain, although there are many examples of this throughout the world. There was no trick-or-treating in North America until the late 1930s (the first print mention of the term appeared in 1934), although there was certainly Halloween candy as early as 1906.

There are, however, some citations referring to ritual begging in 1911, when a Kingston, Ont. newspaper describes smaller children street guising on Halloween between 6 and 7 p.m. By 1952, the custom of trick-or-treating was firmly established, some say to "bribe" children not to vandalize property on this spooky night.

The jack-o-lantern was originally made from turnips and squash and designed to scare off evil spirits. There are a number of elaborate stories about a nasty "Jack" who is sentenced to walk the Earth forever with only a lantern made from a carved turnip and one coal to guide him. Pumpkins, which were widely available in the New World, were quickly adopted by the pioneers - they were sturdy, round and brightly coloured, a much better alternative to turnips.

So what does all this mean for staging our authentic heritage Halloween at Mackin House? How do we manage to capture the spirit of 1909?

Henry J. Mackin, our first resident, was an Irish immigrant from New York. We know the Irish were instrumental in bringing Halloween to North America. We also know that Halloween would have been celebrated inside the house - the children would not be outdoors with treat bags in hand. With this in mind, we focus on traditional pumpkin carving, handmade ghost wreaths, demonstrations of traditional food (the Irish served kale with boiled onions and potatoes yum) and activities (apple bobbing on a string), traditional costumes, candy and popcorn. We never utter the phrase "Trick or treat."

Join us on Saturday, Oct. 29 from noon to 4 p.m. and live the experience of Halloween in 1909. And if you are curious, you can ask about the Mackin House haunting.

Info on our events is found at or by calling 604-516-6151.

Your History is a column in which, once a month, representatives of the Tri-Cities' heritage groups writes about local history. Jill Cook is executive director of the Coquitlam Heritage Society.