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When Black Cats Prowl and Pumpkins Gleam: How Orange & Black Became Halloween

When Black Cats Prowl and Pumpkins Gleam: How Orange & Black Became Halloween

It is a truth universally assumed that Halloween adopted its banner colors because autumn is nothing if not very, very orange.

And that assumption is not false.

There's just more to the story.

In agricultural societies, particularly those within the northern hemisphere, autumn is essentially The Dying Age.

Historically, as temperatures fell, nature decayed amidst the harvest, and livestock animals were slaughtered before winter. Even the hours themselves died off earlier and earlier each day.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

This is recognized as the impetus for the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain.

Samhain was a so-called “threshold” celebration, occurring as it did between an equinox and solstice. And the liminality of the Samhain festival is the heart of its eeriness.

This in-betweenness is what lifted the gauzy veil between reality and the Otherworld, where faeries played and the dearly departed wandered.

Samhain began at sunset on the last day of October, and concluded at sunset the next day on the first day of November; this is because, in Celtic societies, this is when a day began.

And so, in the advancing night, celebrants lit ritual bonfires atop the hills. They congregated, often throwing bones onto the flames--a practice which informs the word's etymology: a "bone fire."

These blazes were made with the friction of one piece of wood against another, the process of which was known as a 'force-fire'. Practicality aside, it likewise functioned as folk magic well into the 1800s.

It was believed that force-fires would counteract bewitchment, as well as the infectious diseases (known collectively as 'murrain') that too often befell cattle.

When the stock of any considerable farmer was seized with the murrain, he would send for one of the charm-doctors, to superintend the raising of a need-fire... By constant friction and pressure, the ends of the auger would take fire, from which a fire would be instantly kindled, and thus the needfire, would be accomplished... A fire kindled from this needfire... and the cattle [were] brought to feel the smoke of this new and sacred fire, which preserved them

The bonfires of Samhain are also believed to have served purposes of so-called sympathetic magic, wherein the fires imitated the protective elements of the sun.

And when the bonfires were sparked against the darkness, they burned, bright and oh-so-orange, in the black of night.

The black of night, in which the ghosts of the dead stepped through the permeable boundary to the living world.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

In the light of a force-fire, all of its surroundings, too, would glow: the flickering ground, the bats tumbling down to hunt the insects drawn by the light; the celebrants themselves.

All cast in lively orange and shades of black.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

The color orange dominates the autumn harvest season beyond the ancient fires of Samhain, of course. Just uttering the word 'October' invites mental images of fluttering orange foliage and grimacing orange gourds.

The latter, however, is a tradition grown up from American farmlands.

Pumpkins are a long-domesticated plant native to the American continents.

And while there are millions of pumpkins now grown in the United Kingdom every year, they did not exist when Irish and Scottish citizens began emigrating en masse to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As generations of these immigrants introduced Gaelic Halloween traditions to their new country, the old-world custom of carving jack o' lanterns from turnips and potatoes was adapted to take advantage of more readily available produce: the plump and orange pumpkin.

These many natural orange elements--fire, leaves, and rotund gourds--no doubt inform the modern iteration of this peculiar gothic holiday.

But it was the savvy of one manufacturing company that popularized the color scheme that we recognize as Halloween.

The Dennison Manufacturing Company was established in 1844, when an eponymous father-and-son team pioneered a better jewelry box: one made of paper (as was standard at the time), but domestically produced, and more durable and attractive than the imported options then available.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Dennison paper-product lines had expanded to include crepe paper.

And Dennison set out to make crepe paper the most indispensable novelty decoration of them all.

‘There is something new in the old and delightfully spooky Eve of All Saints. It is paper… this sounds simple enough, but in reality it is almost magic.’

From ‘Some New Hallowe’en Magic’ by A.W.R. and published in Harper’s Bazaar, October 1912

Halloween parties, once unusual, were becoming more popular by the year.

And in Halloween, a holiday less commonly celebrated than Christmas,  the Dennison Manufacturing Company saw a profitable opportunity to promote its crepe paper by making it the go-to product for Halloween merrymaking.

Halloween decorations certainly existed prior to Dennison’s revelation, but the decorations were not commercial. Historian Lesley Bannatyne has stated that parties of this period typically used festive decor that was derived from more natural resources.

"The natural colors they had to work with in late October were largely orange and yellow: pumpkins, chrysanthemums, marigolds, corn, hay bales... But Halloween party décor was also about creating an otherworldly atmosphere — eerie, spooky, ghostly — and for that, you needed a measure of darkness."

That 'measure of darkness' was more than necessary, "for unless a mysterious atmosphere is created in the rooms," published the Pictorial Review magazine in 1907, "the festivities would cease to be interesting even to children."

So for its brand new Halloween crepe, the Dennison Manufacturing Company paired orange with black.

In addition to solid colors, Dennison made crepe with printed patterns. Printing on bright crepe paper meant using black ink--perfect for grinning cat faces, wide-winged bats, and witch silhouettes.

This black ink necessitated a brightly colored background; so, most likely running with the long-established harvest colors, Dennison chose orange, red, and yellow.

HALLOWE’EN COLORS. Orange is a bright and glowing color, well suited to decorating for Halloween. Black and white give sharp contrast and gray has a softening influence.

To sell their new Halloween crepe, Dennison decided to print a book.

Dennison had produced a so-called instruction booklet before. It was called Art and Decoration in Crepe and Tissue Paper, and it had been circulated since 1894.

But unlike its previous effort—and unlike any holiday promotional material at that time—Dennison’s Bogie Book was all about Halloween.

The Bogie Book offered easy-to-do ideas for home-made Halloween decorations, costumes, and party games--all to be accomplished with the use of specific rolls of Dennison crepe paper, complete with individual product numbers and convenient ordering instructions.

Decorate the living room with vivid orange and black. The doorway, windows, chandelier and fireplace can all be effectively “dressed up.” The doorway shown will give any timid guest a thrill as she tries to enter the room without encountering the dangling spider. To copy it, fasten natural branches above the door frame and suspend orange, yellow and black crepe paper moss from them, allowing it to hang very irregularly… the chandelier sheds a weird glow over the whole room through the long orange crepe paper fringe that surrounds it.

The Bogie Book, however, was not an overnight success.

In fact, after its initial publication, Dennison did not issue a sequel until 3 years later, in 1912.

The cover art of the 1912 edition incorporated much of what is now recognized as Halloween iconography.

The soft cover featured the silhouettes of three hunched witches around a cauldron, a trio of screeching black cats around their feet. Above their pointed hats, the tree branches are perched by owls and hung with jack o' lanterns, all of them black with bright orange eyes. Beneath the illustration, in vibrant lettering, it reads only "Dennison's BOGIE BOOK".

The 1913 Bogie Book cover art likewise featured a shadowy gathering of  witches under a tree. They are outlined against a starry sky with orange light cast by the moon. The lead witch, bent over a walking stick, has a black cat on her shoulder and a wide-eyed owl overhead. In the background, bats fly past the moon, giving the impression of a distressed face.

Halloween, it would seem, was fast catching on.

After that, the Dennison Manufacturing Company began publishing a new Bogie Book every year.

Their popularity grew so much that, by the early 1920s, the price of the Bogie Book had doubled to ten cents a piece.

A preserved countertop store display from that same time period exclaims: "HALLOWEE'N is coming Oct. 31st" and "You'll need Dennison's Bogie Book, 10¢per copy."

The cardboard display is, of course, predominantly black and orange, with a harlequin border. Its illustrations include a flying witch on a crescent moon, a prowling black cat, and a jack o' lantern.

So year after year, Americans were encouraged to buy orange-and-black printed crepe paper aplenty, or otherwise purchase Dennison's pre-fabricated stock pieces, in order to have the most fabulous and ‘weird’ Halloween parties.

Every issue included step-by-step instructions to make things like hanging honeycomb pumpkins, haunting hallways and hidden fortune tellers that would foretell romance and frivolous woe.

There were even instructions on how to make wear-once, worry-free costumes.

They were, of course, made of crepe paper.

Generic by today's standards, these disposable costumes were usually archetypically spooky Halloween characters such as harlequin figures, fortune tellers, and witches. Sometimes, girls wore more 'pretty' thematic costumes, like 'Night' or 'The Moon.'

And these outfits were always illustrated in shades of orange, red, and black.

Weird designs and bright orange in contrast with black make it possible to create very striking costumes for the Hallowe’en party with very little work.

The ongoing success and novelty of Dennison's Bogie Books set forth the iconic color palette of modern Halloween.

As other companies, such as The Beistle Company, took their cues from Dennison, they also promoted the orange-and-black color scheme for their own seasonal products.

Other publications also followed suit, contributing their own decorating advice to Halloween hostesses.

Dennison’s Bogie Books were published annually from 1912 until 1935. Only two years halted its production--the Great World War in 1918, and the onset of the Depression in 1932.

They remain some of the most highly sought-after Halloween ephemera among collectors, even today.

And thanks to the Dennison Manufacturing Company, Halloween and its allure is anything but ephemeral.

Some [superstitions] have been added—some lost; but we today, in America, celebrate the night for its weird mystery and flavor of romance, and because its games foretell the future.

Even if it turns out that Hallowe'en is made of crepe paper.

“Floofooflers & Tartookas:” Dr. Seuss & The Grinch

"Floofooflers & Tartookas:" Dr. Seuss & The Grinch

The Grinch first appeared not in Dr. Seuss's 1957 book, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!", but in a poem called "The Hoobub and The Grinch" published in the May 1955 Issue of Redbook magazine.

Dr. Seuss, whose actual name was Ted Seuss Geisel, said it was the easiest book of his career to write.

And that may be because Grinch was admittedly inspired by Dr. Seuss himself. In a 1957 interview with Redbook, Geisel said this.

"I was brushing my teeth in the morning of the 26th of last December when I noted a very Grinchish countenance in the mirror... Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realized, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about... the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I'd lost."

Excerpt from "Dr. Seuss: American Icon" by Philip Nel © 2005.

This is further supported by the fact that The Grinch says he's put up with the Whos for 53 years, which was Geisel's age at the time of drafting.

And then there's the opinion of Geisel's stepdaughter, Lark Dimond-Cates. In 2003, she stated, "I always thought the Cat [in the Hat] was Ted on his good days, and the Grinch was Ted on his bad days."

Dr. Seuss sketching The Grinch as photographed by Al Ravenna, 1957. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


As for the name: Dr. Seuss didn't invent it.

It's the short version of the common French word "grincheux," which is a curmudgeonly grump. Some have speculated Geisel's time during the Second World War may have put him in the path of a grincheux or two, or introduced him to the word. We just don't know.

When "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" was published in 1957, it was released by both Redbook and Random House.

Nine years later, in 1966, Warner Bros. bought the rights to create an animated Christmas special. This had been very difficult to do, because Geisel was staunchly anti-Hollywood.

So WB got cartoon director Chuck Jones to convince Dr. Seuss--who he'd actually served with during World War II in the Animation Dept. of the US Army's First Motion Picture Unit--to please, PLEASE trust him with The Grinch.

Dr. Seuss as photographed by Al Ravenna, 1957. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Geisel gave his reticent blessing, so the race was on to find a sponsor, which at the time was a necessity in order to air.

The last animated Christmas special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," had no trouble finding sponsorship--it landed Coca Cola.

But almost everyone passed on The Grinch.

Jones finally found an unexpected sponsor in the Foundation for National Banks, which he later said he thought was weird because of the line, "Christmas doesn't come from a store," but hey, don't look a gift-horse in the mouth. So the wheels were finally set in motion for a project with an approved budget that was gargantuan: $300,000 for a 26-minute special.

And that, while "A Charlie Brown Christmas" cost less than $100,000, all in all.

When Jones showed him the final iteration of The Grinch, Ted Geisel was caught off-balance. He said in an interview in 1994 that he told Jones, "That doesn't look like The Grinch; it looks like you!"

"Well, it happens," Jones replied.

On to the Grinch's iconic green fur. We all remember the actual illustrations from the book being black and white, with red and pink highlights. And when the tv special was being formulated, the plan was to keep The Grinch that way.

But Jones made a change, and no, it wasn't for the sake of festive Christmas colors. He arbitrarily chose the coloring for The Grinch because according to him, he seemed curse to always get that color when renting cars.

And let's not forget Max the Pupper, who Chuck Jones later declared his favorite character. He was comedic relief and the audience proxy.

Plus, Max was adorable.

Dr. Seuss reading "The Cat in the Hat," as photographed by Al Ravenna, 1957. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The Grinch was immediately popular. So much so, in fact, that Geisel did two subsequent specials for the character in 1977 for Halloween, and in 1982, wherein The Grinch "grinches" the Cat in the Hat.

The iconic music of the Christmas special was so well received that immediately following its debut, the studio was flooded with letters requesting the Latin translation to Geisel's jibberish lyrics in the final song. Such was his talent, that he intentionally used nonsense lines to sound like and be mistaken for classical Latin.

And as it turns out, there's also a story behind "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Boris Karloff had been signed on to narrate the special. But there was obviously a song involved, and his vocal talent was lackluster, to say the least. So a veteran voice actor named Thurl Ravenscroft was brought on, uncredited, to sing.

Mr. Ravenscroft was also the voice of Tony the Tiger.

You can never un-hear it.

“His Reindeer Drives This Frosty Night”: Santa’s Reindeer

"His Reindeer Drives This Frosty Night": Santa's Reindeer

As establishment as Santa Claus's reindeer are today, the first actual written association with Christmas only occurred in 1821.

"A New Year's Present, for the Little Ones from Five to Twelve" was published by William Gilley--just published by, not written by, as he had received the story anonymously. It was only sixteen pages, and one of those pages included the following rhyme. "Old Santeclaus with much delight / His reindeer drives this frosty night."

The accompanying illustration depicted a sole reindeer doing the job.

Original illustration from "Old Santeclause with much delight," 1821.


Gilley did an interview the next year, asserting that he'd only received the story "with little added information." He went on to say that the author wrote in subsequent letters that he knew of reindeer--as well as their magical powers of flight--from his mother, who was a Native American from an Arctic area.

Only two years after this, in 1823, Clement Moore's poem was published in the Troy Sentinel and was titled "A Visit From St. Nicholas."

In it, Santa's upgraded from the 1821 poem, and his sleigh is famously driven by "eight tiny reindeer."

Of the eight, two had different names than what we're familiar with today: Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, respectively.

Sporadically, subsequent publications would switch to the German words for the same, id est, Donder and Blitzen. And eventually, by the mid-twentieth century, Donder had become Donner.

Handwritten mansucript of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" by Clement C. Moore.


Aside from their natural habitat in the tundra, reindeer had plenty of other reasons to become part of Christmas lore.

In Norse mythology, the god Odin rides the skies on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. The continuity of the number eight is particularly notable, along with the fact that Odin is one of the many that is thought to have inspired the legend of Santa Claus.

Illustration by John Bauer for "Our Fathers' Godsaga," 1911.


Moreover, in the same mythos, Odin's son Thor reigns a flying carriage led by a pair of horned goats.

These elements, married with the simple fact that reindeer were animals used for snow-bound transportation, makes the eventual affiliation with Christmas evident.

"Old Christmas," by Robert Seymour, 1936, possibly inspired by the Swedish sprite jultomten, which rides a Christmas goat called julbocken.


So an eight-legged horse becomes eight tiny reindeer.

As you may have noted, dear reader, Rudolph was not part of the original team. In fact, he didn't come crashing into that party for over 100 years. And it was not for sentimental reasons.

So there was this guy, Carl J. Lomen, a businessman who was seriously called "The Reindeer King." He was well-known for spearheading Alaska's reindeer industry, which was primarily about reindeer meat.

In 1926, Lomen entered into an agreement with Macy's Department Store to create a Christmas reindeer parade, and even having a real-reindeer window display, complete with Santa and sleigh.

Because I guess when people see wild herd animals crowded in a Christmas display, they immediately think, "I would like to eat that."

Anyway, Lomen the Reindeer Weirdo seemed to introduce the notion that reindeer and department stores were like peanut butter and jelly.

Carl J. Lomen, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


So maybe, 13 years later in 1939, the old Chicago-based department store Montgomery Ward was similarly inspired to try to cash in on reindeer, but that's purely speculative.

What we know is they wanted to create their own coloring book as a traditional giveaway during the holiday season, instead of wasting money on buying them from third parties. So as Christmas trees were discarded on curbs in January of 1939, Montgomery Ward was already looking to next year.

Advertising copywriter Robert Maywas assigned the task, on the simple instruction of writing "an animal story."

But it wasn't easy work. The Great Depression was in full swing, his wife had cancer, and he was writing stupid limericks to try to pay the bills when he had a degree from Dartmouth, for goodness sake.

But he worked away at it, and by his own account, as he stared out his office window at a thick fog from Lake Michigan, it came to him--a reindeer!

Robert's daughter Barbara, who was only 4 years old, loved to visit the reindeer at the zoo.

A male caribou (reindeer) grazing in the mountains in Alaska. Photographed by Dean Biggins for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.


Yes, that was it. A reindeer with a red nose, one luminous enough to cut through opaque fog on a perilous Christmas mission.

The red-nosed bit almost got trashed, however, when May's boss heard the Red Nose concept. At the time, a red nose was synonymous with drunkards. But he eventually relented.

May wrote down lots of name that alliterate with "reindeer." Romeo, Reginald, Rollo, Rodney.

But his favorite, which he circled in his notes, was Rudolph.

Sadly, May's wife died in July, in the middle of Rudolph being drafted, and May's boss tried to take the project away from the new widower. But May was adamant in his refusal, saying that he "needed Rudolph now more than ever."

Perhaps in an effort to distract himself from his grief, he finished the Rudolph story in August. He later stated that Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," as well as his own childhood as a bullied misfit, informed the story.

Despite the thing about red noses and alcoholism, Montgomery Ward fully expected success from May's baby. An advertising memo from 1939 states, "We believe that an exclusive story like this aggressively advertised in our newspaper ads and circulars can bring every store an incalculable amount of publicity... and, far more important, a tremendous amount of Christmas traffic."

Rudolph was to be given to every child who visited one of the store's 620 locations, and they clearly expected it to be a hit. They were right.

A sum of 2.4 million "sold out" in 1939. Montgomery Ward then had to shelve the project of printing more due to the paper shortage caused by WWII, so Rudolph didn't return until 1946, when Montgomery Ward distributed 3.6 million copies.

And by the time he did, he was modern folklore.

Rudolph's red nose isn't utter fabrication, by the way.

A particular species of reindeer (rangifer tarandus, specifically) is equipped with a dense and abundant layer of capillaries in the nose. It helps the reindeer regulate its body temperature and supply enough blood to protect its snoot while it roots for food in the snow.

And thank goodness, really.

Otherwise Santa would have to break out Sleipnir.

Pretty Pinstripes & Bad Journalists: The Questionable History of Candy Canes

Pretty Pinstripes & Bad Journalists: The Questionable History of Candy Canes

The history of the candy cane is similar to the history of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" carol: too much myth, not enough primary sources, lots of internet untruths.

Firstly, an Indiana candy-maker did not invent candy cane to celebrate Jesus--not the colors, not the shape (J for "Jesus"), not the anything.

Candy canes pre-date this story.

Secondly, there is an enduring myth that a choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral in 1670 "invented" the candy cane to keep his choirboys quiet during Christmas Eve mass.

As the story goes, the sugar sticks needed to be licked, not bitten, thereby preventing rowdy boys from talking or picking on each other. But since the faith would frown upon this use, the nameless choirmaster bent the candy sticks on one end to imitate a shepherd's crook, to remind his pupils of the Nativity.

This is a lovely, somber story... but a story nevertheless.

No documentation exists recording this event. In fact, it's first referenced as an anecdote around the middle of the 20th century.

But it's been repeated. A lot. By writers and journalists who (this writer opines) should know better.

Illustration of peppermint leaves & flowers, 1897.


When researching peppermint history (as one is wont to do), one will occasionally see a claim that it was used to harken back to the use of hyssop, a Biblical mint flavor.

This is, unfortunately, more unsubstantiated nonsense.

The peppermint leaf, which is considered a natural hybrid mint, was first differentiated by botanist John Ray in 1696, and alternatively reported to have been first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. An astute reader may notice that both those dates occur later than the popular origin story in Cologne, Germany.

Of course, peppermint had been cultivated for thousands of years in its native areas of Northern Africa and the Mediterranean. It was employed as a digestive aid and confection flavor for thousands of years.

Once it was commercialized in England, and later in the United States, both the peppermint leaf and its oil were used to mask the ugly flavors of otherwise gag-inducing "medicinal" tonics.


Advertisement for pepperment oil by W.H. Schieffelin & Co., 1897. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Sugar candy sticks--regardless of the incorporation of peppermint--have been around for many hundreds of years, throughout cultures. There is no lightning moment, when these became candy canes.

The most probable is far less glamorous or piety-inspiring than the above stories: you can hang them on trees if you put a crook in them. As you may recall from the history of the Christmas tree, food was often used to decorate firs, e.g. apples.

In 1837, we finally find verifiable source material for candy sticks, judged in a competition held by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association. And in 1844, we have a written recipe for peppermint sticks in America.

Child eating peppermint stick while standing on pier, 1909. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The National Confectioners Association officially recognizes a German immigrant named August Imgard as the first to decorate Christmas trees with candy canes in America.

Imgard had emigrated from the Bavarian mountain region to the exotic land of Ohio, in order to establish a business as a tailor. In 1847, he was apparently homesick enough to set up a Christmas tree that would make his distant family proud.

So he put a blue spruce on a rotating table and decorated it with the candy, as well as kuchen (cakes), paper ornaments, and gilded nuts. He also asked the local tinsmith to construct a star for a topper, and while the tree rotated on its table, a music box played. It was a smash hit, with people traveling from miles away to view it.

August died in 1904. Every year, a pine by his grave is lit up with Christmas lights.

It should be noted that Imgard's decorative candy canes were pure white.

All candy canes were, actually, until the turn of the nineteenth century. The origin of the red stripes is lost, no matter what you might read about the red representing Christ's blood. That's a pervasive and evidence-less myth, too.

The red pinstripe probably just occurred alongside candy canes becoming decorative. Red is an enduring Christmas color throughout the centuries, and red and white pair well together. That's about all we've got.

Further written mentions of candy canes are abundant in children's literature. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about getting red mittens and a beautiful notched candy stick for Christmas. And in the short story, "Tom Luther's Stockings" from the Bostonian periodical Ballou's Magazine in 1866, we see candy canes again.

"Tom stared at him with a puzzled smile; then pointing to some mammoth candy canes displayed in a shop window across the street, he said, insinuatingly: 'My little dear, just take me to the young lady, and you shall have those and enough candy to get sick for a month.'"

Excerpt from the periodical "Ballou's Magazine," 1866.

In the short story "Benny's Letter," published in the periodical "The Nursery" in 1874, the titular character Benny Holbrook writes to Santa.

"Dear Santa Claus, -- next Christmas please bring me a drum, and a pair of rubber boots, and some oranges, and a pencil that marks red and blue, and one that marks black, and some almonds, and a writing-desk, and a rubber-ball, and some candy, and a pistol that shoots paper caps, and a safe with a frog to swallow the pennies like the one Robbie Kendall has got, and some figs and grapes, and a new sled with Gen[eral] Grant on it, and please bring me some writing-paper and a candy-cane."

Excerpt from the periodical "The Nursery," 1874.

Benny, damn.

So. Why all the untruths about candy canes? It appears to be a multi-generational effort to inject Christianity into an otherwise secular holiday item.

But wherever they came from: they sure are pretty.

Templa Exornantur: Mistletoe & Holly

Templa Exornantur: Mistletoe & Holly

Mistletoe is central to many ancient traditions. Most notably, that of the Druids.

Pliny the Elder wrote in his "Natural History" at length about a particular practice called the Ritual of the Oak and Mistletoe. According to this account, it occurred on the solstices.

The Druids scaled an oak tree, cut down the mistletoe hanging from it with a golden sickle, slaughtered two white bulls whose horns had never before been bound, and created a concoction from the mistletoe that was supposed to cure sterility, as well as act as an all-inclusive antidote to poisoning.

And since mistletoe lived all year while the sacred oak it grew on appeared to die, it signified immortality and as evidenced above, fertility.

The kissing tradition is a tough one to pin down.

"Under the Mistletoe," 1873.


Mistletoe is rife with fertility symbolism, from its nature as an aphrodisiac to its berries to the fact that it is a semi-parasitic plant, which means that whenever it's found, it's attached to another tree.

That, of course, implies coupling, and this fact may have been what led to it being used in marriage ceremonies and festivals in Greece and Rome, as well as the aforementioned Druidic associations.

It was, all in all, a sacred plant. Even Aenaes's golden bough, which he carried to the Underworld, was mistletoe. Some have even proposed that the little x's at the bottom of the berries (pictured) were first associated with a kiss because of mistletoe.

Some associate the kissing with the Norse legend of the death of Baldr, god and son of Frigg, to whom mistletoe was a sacred plant.

Baldr was killed with a mistletoe arrow in a schemed concocted by Loki. In both the happy (Baldr's resurrected!) and sad (Baldr's left to Hel) versions of the story, Frigg declares that mistletoe must henceforth be known as a plant of love, and people kissed underneath it to honor her and keep memory of Baldr from dying.

There was also the Scandinavian custom of truce. If you were to happen upon this plant while in the woods, you and your foe both laid down your weapons beneath, and as time progressed, expressed a greeting of friendship.

But this was fairly secular practice for a long time.

Mistletoe was used as a door hanging as a protective charm against demons, witchcraft, fire, and overall bad luck. It was placed under pillows to induce dreams of omens.

Its first recorded use as an excuse to kiss was in England around the 1500s, though I cannot find the primary source. Reportedly, by the 1700s, it was popular custom of the servant/working class.

Tradition was that for every kiss, a berry was picked. No more berries, no more smooches. Any woman who refused a kiss under the mistletoe was cursed to receive no proposals, or become an old maid.

And then Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, henceforth and forever known as the Literary Grandaddies of Holidays As We Know Them, made sure it stuck around.

Irving wrote in 1820 about the kissing tradition in "Christmas Eve," from his work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

"Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids."

Excerpt from "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent." by Washington Irving, 1820.

"The Pickwick Papers," written by Dickens and published in 1836, is no less jovial.

Upon seeing the titular Mr. Pickwick lead an old woman underneath the "mystic branch" for the kissing ritual, the young and pretty girls in the room went all aflutter and "screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and did everything but leave the room, until [the girls] all at once found it useless to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good grace" after which "faces were in a glow, and curls in a tangle."

Illustration from "The Pickwick Papers" by Charles Dickens, circa 1881.


All this kissing for a plant whose name actually means "sh t on a stick". ("Mistel", dung; "tang", twig.) Because, you know, it's germinated through bird feces.

On to holly.

Illustration of holly leaves. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Holly was also cherished by the Druids, whose winter solstice celebrated god-twins the Oak King (the transient tree whose leaves fall) and the Holly King (perennial, who when the Oak King dies, can be seen amidst the dead branches.)

Druids and Celts also wore braided holly crowns on special occasions and their signature winter festivals, as did the Romans.

The Celts also adorned their doors with it or otherwise brought it indoors due to its associations with fairies and sylvan sprites--some claim to welcome them in, others say to act as "fairy flypaper" and trap them out.

Holly is well-known for its practical protective uses, and the remnants of its utility as a protector of deer parks and garden estates is still found in the names of the same: Holly Oaks, Hollywood, Hollins. It was often planted around valuable or aesthetically outstanding plant species to protect them from grazing fauna.

It's easy to see, then, why it was also commonly used in representations of honesty and fidelity. Henry VIII even wrote a love song titled "Green Groweth the Holly" about how stalwart and loyal he is to his lady love.


Eventually, the Church co-opted holly, claiming the sharp leaves represented Jesus's crown of thorns, and the red berries were His blood. Holly is also considered a "male" plant, where ivy is its female counterpart, which is the source material for the English carol "The Holly and the Ivy."

Decorating with holly and mistletoe is recorded in Britain, of course, and across the ocean in Virginia, where they shot mistletoe down from trees. Because it seems that where the Englishmen go, English customs perpetuate.

As evergreens, both plants symbolize immortality and coming spring in the dead of winter. And everlasting life, of course, easily translates to Christian canon. Early church calendars have found Christmas Eve notated as templa exornantur, meaning "the Churches are decked."

Christmas postcard circa 1907.


A brief PSA: no matter what the ancient cultures believed about healing properties, don't eat eat mistletoe or holly berries. They're supremely toxic.

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A Stake of Holly Through His Heart: Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”

A Stake of Holly Through His Heart: Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"

175 years ago today, on December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens kinda-sorta-in-a-way-I-guess self-published "A Christmas Carol."

Charles Dickens, 1858.


So here's the deal.

Charles Dickens was an ardent advocate, but frequently suffered from The Borings.

After reading his friend's expose on the working conditions of children in the springtime of 1843. Therein, it was detailed that girls sewed for 16 hours a day and took shelter just above the factory floor, and young boys pushed coal carts through choked, lightless corridors for 12 or more hours. They suffered; they were ill. They often died.

Dickens himself had been forced to leave school and work in a bootblack factory at only 12 years old, after his father was thrown into the Marshalsea debtors' prison in London in 1824.

It was a nightmare he carried with him--and often incorporated into his writing--for the rest of his life.

Illustration of Charles Dickens at a child at the Warrens Blacking Factory. Published in "The Leisure Hour," 1904.


Dickens had also visited America in 1842--and he really, really hated it.

In fact, he only traveled to the Northern states, too enraged and appalled by slavery to dignify the South with even the thought of a visit.

But despite the nightmare of American manners, or lack there of, he took a great interest in industrial cities and working conditions of the poor; he even visited The Five Points. Yes, the "Gangs of New York" Five Points.

When Dickens got back, he wrote a series called "American Notes" about how awful America was--to Americans' great offense--and also a novel. This book bombed so badly, he ended up having to pay his publisher.

Dickens also famously visited and later wrote about the Field Lane Ragged School for children, which directly influenced another of his most famous novels: Oliver Twist.

But regarding Dickens' advocacy: what to do with this horrific child labor?

Not unlike arguments made today by certain parties, many argued that sure, it was awfully sad, but honestly, they were poor because they were lazy, and to help them would only encourage them to continue to be lazy; it was best to turn them away to prevent enabling their needy poverty. Or, you know, if you fed them, it would lead to an increased population of poor, malnourished malcontents.

So the solution was, sure, there was technically help to be found in the form of workhouses, but if you went there, you were separated from your family, made to live in squalor, and were barely fed.

Essentially, they created refuge, but refuge that was intentionally horrific in order to dissuade those same needy people from seeking it out.

Dickens wanted to write a pamphlet to enlighten the masses. But he realized that doing so would compel very few, and would make exactly no one want to listen to him.

Instead, he decided, he needed a narrative, and a character made of spite and redemption, to be his vessel.

Charles Dickens, 1858.


Dickens then received an invitation to speak at a benefit for the Manchester Athaeneum on October 5, 1843. The Athaeneum was an organization that sought to educate and bring culture to the working class which otherwise would not have the opportunity... kind of a 19th-century TED Talk.

Dickens then began formulating this narrative: a parable, written specifically to coincide with the redemptive powers of Christmas.

And in just six weeks, he'd written "A Christmas Carol."

Handwritten title page.


Tiny Tim was originally "Little Fred" and then "Tiny Mick."

Dickens had two younger brothers named Fred (Frederick and Alfred, ok?) but they were not the inspiration for Tim, although the name Fred stuck with the novel in character of Scrooge's nephew.

It seems that Tiny Tim was based on Dickens' own nephew, Henry Burnett, Jr., the ailing little boy of Dickens' sister, Fanny. Henry had "tuberculosis of the bone" or renal tubular acidosis. He died in 1849, just shy of 10 years old and only a year after his own mother, Fanny.

A sketch of Charles Dickens in 1842, with a small portrait of his sister Fanny in the lower left corner.


It's been speculated that the character of Tiny Tim did have RTA, or rickets, given that he uses a crutch and leg braces, and that his health rebounds due to Scrooge's loving intervention and belief in good health being found in one's diet. This is most likely because certain foods, such as citrus, would have aided in RTA, whereas medicinal approaches of the time would have exacerbated the symptoms.

As for Scrooge, a lot of theorizing's been done about the character who even today personifies the reformative potential of the human spirit.

"Marley's Ghost" by John Leech as published in "A Christmas Carol," 1843. Courtesy of the British Library.


From the character being based on Dickens's polarizing feelings about his own daddy, to Scottish mealman Ebenezer Scroggie, speculation abounds.

It's hardly necessary speculation, though. Dickens eventually wrote in his letters that his inspiration was the notorious English eccentric and penny-pincher John Elwes, a politician who died in 1789 and was known for every ridiculous and miserly trick pre-Eve Scrooge pulls.

And more.

John Elwes, 1700s.


Seriously. Dude was insane.

Anyway. Dickens's publisher, Chapman & Hall, gave him hell over the whole thing; do recall that his last effort had been a bust.

Dickens finally came to an agreement with them that he would pay for production, which he would be reimbursed for via the profits if "A Christmas Carol" sold well, a fact of which he had no doubt.

So Chapman & Hall bungled the book by producing it with supremely ugly olive-colored endpapers, which Dickens hated.

They updated to yellow endpapers, but those didn't suit the title page, which subsequently had to be reworked.

The Frontispiece of "A Christmas Carol," 1843.


The final product was bound in red with gilt edges, and cost a handsome 5 shillings.

I've read that's equivalent to £23/$29 today--pretty expensive for such a small book, at least by modern standards.

In total, six thousand copies were finished only two days before the release. And they immediately sold the hell out.

Chapman & Hall released two more editions prior to the new year and by the end of 1844, thirteen editions existed in total.

Charles Dickens has often been credited as the Inventor of Modern Christmas.

His novel appeared to turn the holiday into a one-day family feast, instead of the manorial Twelvetide of celebrations long past. Because those had been left behind in the wake of poverty and cruel industrialism.

But even with workhouses and child labor in the world and Twelvetide an ancient and unobtainabld memory, people could still have at least a single day of Christmas.

In fact, "A Christmas Carol" was a lauded as a "sledgehammer to the ills of Industrialism."

"Scrooge Extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits."


It was in Dickens' Christmas that the world discovered the warm and humble spirit of celebrating with the nuclear family, in one's own parlor.

Dickens turned Christmas from a jolly festival to an almost sanctified act of familial love. That, married with Dickens's depictions of new-fangled Christmas trees, as well as carolers and the sumptuous Christmas-Day turkey, was instrumental in the concept of the Christmas so dear (and Dickensian) to us today.

Christmas thusly became a holiday of togetherness and forgiveness.

In addition, the greeting "Merry Christmas" had been around for centuries, but Dickens is credited with its universal popularity due to its use in "A Christmas Carol."

An illustration of a reformed Scrooge and shocked Bob Cratchit, by John Leech, "A Christmas Caro," 1843.


Fun side story: On New Year's Eve, 1867, a 32-year-old writer sat in Steinway Hall in New York City.

He was fresh from a trip to the Holy Land, that he had by his own wit and charm gotten his employer, the Alta California newspaper in San Francisco, to bankroll.

And now, he was seeing in the New Year by listening to Charles Dickens read "A Christmas Carol" on his second book tour in America.

Illustration of people buying tickets for Dickens's reading at Steinway Hall in New York City, published in Harper's Weekly in December 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Later, in his review, he wrote that Dickens was a poor reader--that he didn't anunciate or emphasize correctly, and that he was difficult to hear. But the latter may have been because the reviewer's seat was barely adequate, being midway up the rows.

"Charles Dickens as he appears when reading" at Steinway Hall in New York City, illustrated by Charles A. Barry published in Harper's Weekly in December 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Which is funny, because The New York Times had just published the following review on December 10th.

"When he came to the introduction of characters and to dialogue, the reading changed to acting, and Mr. Dickens here showed a remarkable and peculiar power. Old Scrooge seemed present; every muscle of his face, and every tone of his harsh and domineering voice revealed his character."

Despite his opinions on Dickens' lackluster delivery, he was still in awe of the human-sized giant who stood on the stage before him, talking like a person does, in real time.

"But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens — Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it."

That was a big night for him. He was not only was he seeing Dickens--CHARLES DICKENS--reading his Christmas classic aloud on New Year's Eve. He was also on a first date with a pretty girl named Olivia, who would become his wife.

And it's even more astonishing when you find out that this awestruck, clever writer would become his own legend, the Americanest writerly counterpart to the Britishest Dickens.

Yes, that young writer in the audience was Mark Twain.

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This is Halloween: The Headless Horseman

Watch Your Head: Dullahans & Death Coaches

Here, there be horsemen.

In English literature, he is Sir Gawain's immortal combatant, the Green Knight. In Scottish legends, he is Ewen-of-Little-Head. And in Irish folklore, he is the Dullahan.

As you may have guessed if you were a Lit major who remembers certain medieval poems, the Dullahan is the headless rider of a gigantic steed.

Unlike the Green Knight, however, the Dullahan's ink-black horse breathes sparks and flames from its gaping nostrils, and the Dullahan holds his head--which sometimes described as having the color and/or consistency of moldy cheese--aloft, which aids his supernatural sight.

His head, with its deep hollows for eyes and its rictus grin, is sometimes secured beneath his leg instead. He rides with a long whip... made of human vertebrae.

Celts are morbid.

He rides in pursuit of a single mortal soul: a particular person doomed to die at the Dullahan's gruesome whim. But the dullahan is also afflicted with limited speech, and is only able to utter one name--this one person's name--per journey.

And this one person cannot escape the Dullahan, because all locks, no matter the gate or door, will open to him.

If another unfortunate soul happens to see the dread Dullahan, he will blind one or both their eyes--striking it out with his grotesque whip--or throw a bucket of blood in their face.

Celts are really, really morbid.

This grim rider reportedly originated in the worship of Crom Dubh, a fertility god who demanded human sacrifice. This sacrifice, undertaken by a certain ancient Irish king, was best made by decapitation.

But when Catholicism galloped in to change the world, Crom Dubh still demanded headless sacrifice, and manifested in so-called corporeal form, as the Dullahan.

The Dullahan's counterpart in other regions of Ireland is the Coiste Bodhar, or Death Coach.

The Coiste Bodhar's headless coachman reigns four or a half-dozen pitch black horses, who pull a coach made of coffins and/or human bones.

The Death Coach moves at such unnatural speed that the brush lining the road it barrels down are often set to flame. The rickety rumbling of its wheels is often accompanied by a banshee's wail.

Scotland has its own death coach: a pale shade, ringing for and collecting the dead, that haunts the cobbled Royal Mile in Edinburgh. As in Ireland, to witness the Death Coach is an omen of your demise.

And of course, the Dullahan inspired author Washington Irving as he wrote his short story set in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

We know the tale by our modern Dullahan: the Headless Horseman. He is an agile rider bearing a carved pumpkin as his severed head. And after a harvest festival rife with ghost stories and punctuated by refused marriage proposals, the Headless Horseman pursues schoolmaster Ichabod Crane into the deep autumn night, toward the Old Dutch Burying Ground.

Ichabod Crane is never seen again.

All that is left of him is his hat, his horse's tramped saddle, and a pumpkin shattered on the ground. His ghost, old wives have said, wanders melancholy throughout the village of Sleepy Hollow, "spirited away" as he was "by supernatural means."

Despite your recollections of certain awesomely Gothic film from 1999, the original story did not speak so much to the Horseman being a real supernatural presence.

Instead, it implies that Brom Bones, costumed as the ghost of the Headless Horseman, chased down Ichabod Crane and either banished him or outright murdered him, all for Katrina Van Tassel's hand in marriage.

The Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow New York, 1907.


And in a fun historical twist, it turns out that Ichabod Crane was a real man--not an awkward schoolmaster, but a career soldier in the United States Army, who participated in the War of 1812, and with whom Washington Irving had become acquainted.

Major Crane is buried on Staten Island in one of the most awesomely eerie cemeteries I've ever beheld.

Happy Halloween, friends.

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This Is Halloween: Honoring the Dead

Our Dearly Departed: Samhain, Lemuralia, & the Evolution of Hallowmas

As has been pointed out countless times before this, agricultural societies tend to share a calendar when it comes to death celebrations. It's the natural progression of the seasons: autumn is The Dying Time.

I've never met anyone who doesn't have at least a passing familiarity with Samhain (but seriously, it's pronounced SAW-ehn, ok?)

It's, like, Protohalloween.

One of four time-passage (i.e., seasonal) festivals of the Celtic calendar, Samhain began on October 31 and marked the end of the harvest period and the onset of winter. This was also when livestock were selected for slaughter.

During this eerie transitional time, the veil between the natural world and the otherworld was lifted, and various rituals were performed in response, some varying by region.

Hilltop bonfires are a popular example. Sometimes a bonfire was used for protection via"sympathetic" magic, by imitating the sun and thereby enveloping the revelers in light as darkness dominated the year; many people would steal this protective flame and circle their home with torch in hand, to trace a protective circle. Other rituals used the fire for divination and games.

Fire was also a staple of cleansing rituals, such as inhaling smoke, or walking one by one between a pair of bonfires.

Some speculate that bonfires having drawn in bats led to the creatures' primitive association with Halloween. Because firelight attracts bugs, and bats wouldn't have been far behind, regularly sweeping in for dinner. So in an electricity-less age, a Samhain bonfire would have been one of the few opportunities to see this strange, shrieking creature dart in and out of the light.

Accounts of so many different Samhain rituals float around without ever citing a time period, coz frankly, we don't really know. What we do know is that the liminality was celebrated and feared. The Otherworld invited the visits of fairies and the dead into our human realm, as passage was free and easy on this in-between day.

Some, like your ancestors, you welcomed to your dinner table with an empty chair and reverent silence; some, you tried to ward away from your home with glowing, carved gourds, or trick by disguising yourself so they could not find you. It's said that this eventually became "guising,: or putting on a costume and going door to door to recite snippets of poems or plays in exchange for food.

But if you wandered out into the night, there was a chance you could find yourself lost in the Otherworld. To propitiate these sprites and ghosts, offerings of food, usually a portion of the crop, or drinks would be left outside for them.

Honoring the dead is, of course. a pan-cultural phenomenon.

There's Dia de Muertos, for instance, which originated with Aztec celebrations; as the rituals spread throughout Mexico, it was eventually moved to coincide with the Catholic triduum of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

Rife with cempasuchiles and happy skulls, it honors and celebrates the departed.

And then there are the forgotten festivals.

Lemuria, an ancient Roman festival, had massive influence over the Catholic calendar. According to Ovid, it began when Romulus, the surviving twin founder of Rome, was haunted by the angry ghost of his murdered brother Remus (Remuria became Lemuria, you see).

Lemuria was celebrated on alternating days mid-May (Maius): May 9, 11, and 13.

The grimmest of all those days was the last. The ghosts of those poorly departed never given proper rites were called "lemures" would wander the mortal world, seeking to bond with the living, usually a household. But they could not necessarily be trusted, since they were not family.

For those ghosts who weren't your forebears, you left offerings of leftover food, coins, or water or milk--sometimes at a crossroad--to ease their journeys, but on broken platters, so they knew they were not welcome to stay. I've also heard of milk being poured on graves to quell these ghosts.

But during Lemuria, there were also the larvae--the restless, vengeful dead who would haunt the living.

Ancient Roman mosaic representing the Wheel of Fortune.


To dispel the larvae from a home, the family patriarch would rise in the night and wash his hands three times. Then--barefoot, or at least with no bounds or knots in his clothing or shoes--he throws beans over his shoulder, or according to some, spits them out. As he goes, he recites an incantation to "redeem him and his" from the evil larvae.

He would do this in every room, nine times each, and at the end, he or the family made a freaking racket with bronze pans or gongs (or whatever) while banishing the larvae with another incantation.

In 609 A.D., the Pope turned Lemuria into All Saints Day. And some historians speculate that All Saints Day as we know it, a.k.a. All Hallows Day, was moved to its current place in the calendar by the Church specifically to remove focus from the pagan ritual of Samhain.

This made October 31 All Hallows Evening--the night before All Hallows Day.

Then All Hallows Even.

Then Hallowe'en.

And in case you were wondering: yes, the lemurs of Madagascar were named after the lemures. Because of their wide eyes and ghostly faces.

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This Is Halloween: Jack O’Lantern

Ghost Lights: The Jack O'Lantern

Jack O'Lanterns are, of course, the icon of Halloween; creating them is a holiday tradition until itself.

"Carving a Jack O'Lantern" by Enoch Wood Perry, Jr. 1895.


They're also not a little eerie to look at, and many people might casually cite their association with Halloween as the reason why.

But the truth is, the jack o'lantern resembles something that we, as humans, are hardwired to be wary of.

The overly large and hollow eye sockets. The triangular hole where a nose should be. The very wide, stiff grin, which is not dissimilar to the rictus of a corpse...

Summarily, they look like skulls and dead faces.

Halloween was not the impetus for gourd carving.

It's been tradition for thousands of years, for varying uses, across cultures. But like so many Halloween-specific traditions, we owe the jack o'lanterns we know to the Irish and the Highland Scots.

But what we consider a jack o'lantern is actually version 2.0, or even 3.0. Because in the old world, there were no pumpkins.

The prototypical jack o'lanterns were actually turnips, or sometimes potatoes, that more or less looked like mummified Voldemort.

At first glance, they don't have a very fanciful origin story.

In Britain, as far back as the mid-1600s or so, any nightwatchman with a lantern was reportedly called Jack--"Jack" being the all-encompassing name that was given to a man whose name you didn't know.

You, dear reader, might notice that a great many trickster and wily sprites also have this name, such as Jack Frost and Jack and the Beanstalk, even Jack in the Box. They all invite mischief and surprise. But that's a tangent for another day.

Eventually, though, Jack the Nightwatchman, swinging his lantern in the distance, began to morph with a legend. Specifically, that of a particular motherf cker named Stingy Jack.

There are about a thousand variants, but the following two appear to be very popular.

Jack was a thief and a fiend. One day, while going about in all his nary-do-wellness, he came across the Devil himself. Instead of letting his soul be stolen, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree.

And while the poor Devil was up there, Jack carved a cross into the trunk so he couldn't get down. When Jack finally took it easy on the Devil and let him out of the tree, he did so in exchange for the promise that the Devil would never, ever take his soul.

In the second version, Jack is still a thief and a fiend. By different means and in various settings, Jack tricks the Devil into morphing in a coin, and then he hops into Jack's wallet.

But to the Devil's disadvantage, there is also tiny blessed crucifix in the wallet, so the Devil is again unable to free himself.

Jack, again, extorts the Devil, promising his freedom only if he received the same promise from him.

The result of both stories is the same. Jack eventually dies, as one inevitably does.

But God isn't having any of his sinful thievery in Heaven, and the Devil swore that old oath never to take his soul.

But the Devil--being as kind as he is apparently gullible--takes up an ember from the fires of Hell, that will burn bright for all eternity. And he gifts it to Jack, so the poor fellow can see his way as he wanders the lightless countryside.

Forsaken by both Heaven and Hell, Jack hollows out a turnip to contain Hell's ember--a makeshift lantern, if you will. And so he, Jack o' the Lantern, was damned to wander the twilight realm of lost souls forevermore, with only a glowing turnip to light his way.

And faraway through the deep night, people could see the bobbing flicker of Jack's undying ember.

But were people actually witnessing a homeless ghost? Or were they seeing a march of the fairy folk?

Alternatively called ghost lights, hobby lanterns, or a will o' the wisp.

Painting by Hermann Hendrich, 1823.


Scotland's Will o' the Wisp functions on the same premise as Stingy Jack.

Will, however, was a wicked blacksmith who botched the second chance St. Peter granted him at Heaven's gate, and likewise is so condemned to wander the earth forever with only a coal from the Devil to light his path. Will's "wisp" is a bundle lit to make a torch, whose moving, winking flame would, at a distance, also appear to be an atmospheric ghost.

Will o' the Wisp, however, would seem to be a little meaner than Stingy Jack. Jack may have thwarted the Devil, Will lures night travelers to watery deaths, as his light often appears hovering just above lochs.

These ghost lights and will o-the-wisps also have a scientific name: Ignis Fatuus, which in medieval Latin means "fool's fire."

Both Ireland and Scotland have no dearth of marshy terrain. These wetlands have a signature natural phenomenon: fire, spit up from the surface of the water, which occurs when gasses--specifically, those generated by organic decay--oxidate.

The result is phosphorescence: a flickering belch of flame.

Other proposed explanations include the bioluminescence of fireflies and particular forms of fungi, or the light reflecting off of whiteish-colored animals like owls, which would account for the more erratic and reactionary movement of the "flames."

These flames were explained by people via superstitions within the context of their cultures; id est, with fairy stories and ghost legends.

So what people were witnessing in the night honestly may have been fire. Just not fire carried by a restless soul who duped the Devil.

When the Irish and the Scots hit American shores in droves, so did the many elements that would eventually coalesce into American Halloween.

The first reference to a jack o'lantern in American writing is found in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales" from 1837: "Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o’ lantern!"

But the difference between the old world and the new was this: turnips were out, and pumpkins were SO in. Pumpkins are plentiful here, especially in the month of October--it's their harvest season after all. Plus, they were larger than turnips--about as big as a human head, really.

"No Hallowe'en with a Jack-O'-Lantern" by Ruth Edna Kelley, 1919.


And that meant they were just big enough to look like haunted, disembodied heads, especially when they were carved with gruesome faces.

With such limitless possibilities for frights, Jack o'lanterns were favored for Halloween pranks. They were often stuck on the end of a pike, so rascals could go around terrorizing their neighbors. Boys would randomly prop a jack o'lantern up in front of darkened windows.

Imagine all the screams of fright echoing down the streets while glowing orange jack o'lanterns swung in the air and darted around corners.

Halloween postcard published by Woodruff House in Ohio, 1901.


Yeah, Hell Night and all those destructive pranks associated with Halloween are also considered to have Scotch-Irish origins.

You're welcome, America.

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This is Halloween: Houdini

Rosabelle: Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini died on Halloween 1926, at the age of only 52. The self-proclaimed "escapologist" died from peritonitis.

Harry Houdini, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


His death was all because of some gut punches thrown by a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead.

Houdini had been in a reclining position in his dressing room, recuperating from a recently broken ankle and reportedly reading mail when Whitehead and his friend ushered themselves in.

Because Houdini had been bragging that he could take any strikes to his abdomen if he was able to brace himself first, Whitehead took him up on the challenge.

Under the impression that Houdini had, in fact, braced himself, Whitehead landed four quick blows to Houdini's unguarded torso.

Poster of one of Harry Houdini's shows, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Houdini performed that night in gruesome pain, and for two days thereafter.

When he finally went to the doctor, he had a 102 °F fever and was told to go to the hospital immediately to remove his appendix. Instead, he decided to put in his show as planned.

By the time he began, his fever had escalated to 104 °F, and by the third act, he had collapsed behind the curtain. Even then, he couldn't be convinced to go to the hospital until the next morning. And then it was too late.

Houdini's alleged last words were, "I'm tired of fighting."

After his death, his friends claimed a variety of supernatural events, like his inscription vanishing from a book, and a bust of Houdini shattering without cause. But his wife, Beatrice ("Bess"), was still devoted and waiting.

And thus began a new Halloween tradition: the Houdini Seance.

Every year, on the anniversary of his death, a seance was held at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood by Houdini's widow. For 10 years, she waited for a sign from beyond the veil.

Spiritualism--you know, the seances and knocking and such--was the belief that the living could communicate with the deceased via a proxy or "spirit medium." It was the bee's knees in the 20s, and Houdini was having exactly none of that BS.

Houdini had a vendetta against spirit mediums. It was an animosity that developed after the death of his beloved mother in 1913.

Houdini with his mother and his wife, Bess, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


In earnest, he had turned to spirit communication, where he learned they were exploitative charlatans.

So he made it his purpose to expose them.

In the course of his crusade, Houdini debunked countless psychics; most notable was the famed medium Margery, also known as the Blonde Witch of Lime Street. Because of this, Houdini drew the repudiation of no less than Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was also an ardent believer in fairies. (No, seriously, though.)

From "Spirit Tricks," in Popular Science, December, 1925.


Margery had been presented to a panel of skeptics convened by Scientific American; they offered a $2,500 reward for a medium who could outwit them all.

They actually considered validating Margery, until Houdini was informed.

Enraged, he dropped all his shows and rushed to Boston to witness Margery's seance. He went on to expose all of her trickery, but his condemnation of her was not to be taken lightly--she was a celebrity medium, after all.

Rumor has it that Margery's spirit guide, "named" Walter, assured an audience in 1926 that Houdini would be dead by Halloween of the same year.

From "How I Unmask the Spirit Fakers," Popular Science, November, 1925.


Walter was not wrong.

Having been dead-set on his vendetta, Houdini had devised an elaborate code with his wife, Bess, to disprove his own ghostly presence, if he died first.

If an afterlife existed, he'd come back, and the code would ensure Bess wasn't being swindled.

Despite how this story has so often been spun, this was, in this writer's opinion, not a romantic gesture: Houdini was a vehement anti-spiritualist and a famously vain man. He would prove there was no afterlife, even in death.

Houdini disproving spirit photography with the "ghost" of Abraham Lincoln, 1920s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


That isn't to say the Houdinis weren't close (though they had their difficulties. Trust me.) How they met is still up for debate because they kinda loved to mindf ck people, but all the stories are charming regardless. Harry's brother said they met because he was dating her first, while they were performing.

Bess said they met when Houdini spilled something on her dress during a magic act at her school. Houdini himself said he "eloped with [Bess] out of her schoolbooks." At one point, while drinking, Bess reportedly told a friend that she "sold her virginity to Houdini for an orange."

Houdini (seated) with his brother "Hardeen," circa 1901.


In 1929, a medium named Arthur Ford claimed to have successfully channeled Houdini's ghost, and arranged a seance with Bess for January 8. Ford apparently successfully used the code, and he even had Bess sign a witness statement on her own stationary (though "not in her own hand.")

She even gave an enthused interview to the New York Times.

Bess, however, was recuperating from a fall down a flight of stairs and was heavily medicated (and by some accounts, an alcoholic.)

As it was reported that Houdini had at last returned from the grave, the skeptics rushed in. They claimed that Bess sold the code to Ford ahead of time, or that she just wanted fame.

Eventually, a now-sober and much-pestered Bess recanted her belief in Ford's message.

The code had apparently been revealed to a reporter the year before OR written in a book OR reported to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Arthur Ford had (unlike his contemporaries) done his research.

Upon Ford's death in 1971, his executor found proof that the Houdini seance was faked, as well as his extensive files of research on his other clients.

The Ford debacle aside, every Halloween, for ten years, Bess held a seance to reach her husband in the afterlife.

The so-called Final Seance was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in L.A., and was broadcast on the radio. For an hour, they tried to summon Houdini, complete with desperate outcries.

At the end of the hour, Bess announced, "Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone. The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently turn out the light," she said, snuffing the candle she had kept lit for a decade. "It is finished. Good night, Harry!"

Bess retired from the Houdini Seance in 1936--she famously stated that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man"--but the tradition continues officially AND unofficially to this day.

Bess Houdini died in 1943. She was buried against her wishes in a separate cemetery than her husband, because they were of differing faiths. (He, Jewish; she, Catholic.)

So what was the code?

It had been used by the Houdinis regularly in their mind-reading acts, and was a phrase made like this: a series of words, each one representing a letter, which thus created a word.

When finished--if correct--the code was, "Rosabelle, b-e-l-i-e-v-e."

Rosabelle was the song that Bess and Harry sang in their first performance together... or the song she sang when he fell in love with her during her performance on Coney Island.

Poster advertising Harry and Bess Houdini by Liebler & Maass, circa 1895. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


You know, depending on who was telling the story, and when.

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