Friday, October 30, 2015

Weekly Geek! Happy Halloween!

This Weekly Geek is dedicated to one of our favorite holidays - Halloween!  We are going to explore the American traditions mentioned in Chapter 42, A Discovery of Witches.

A tiny witch and a slightly larger vampire were holding hands on the front porch.
“Trick or treat,” they intoned, holding out their open pillowcases.
“I’m a vampire,” the boy said, baring his fangs at Matthew. He pointed to his sister. “She’s a witch.”
“I can see that,” Matthew said gravely, taking in the black cape and white makeup. “I’m a vampire, too.”
The boy examined him critically. “Your mother should have worked harder on your costume. You don’t look like a vampire at all. Where’s your cape?” The miniature vampire swept his arms up, a fold of his own satin cape in each fist, revealing its bat-shaped wings. “See, you need your cape to fly. Otherwise you can’t turn into a bat.”

And that was Matthew's introduction to a modern American Halloween and one of the sweetest passages in A Discovery of Witches.  What better way to celebrate the day than to geek over the origins of some of the traditions Matthew experienced before his time walk?  Let's do it!

Trick or Treat!
Let's start with the "trick or treat" tradition, which first became popular in the US in the 1930s.  It's actually a combination of two medieval traditions: "guising" and "souling".

Guising is part of the Celtic tradition of celebrating the end of the year by dressing up as evil spirits. The Celts believed that as we moved from one year to the next, the worlds of the dead and the living would overlap, and demons would roam the earth once again.  Dressing up as demons was sort of a defense mechanism.  If you encountered a real demon roaming the earth, they would think you were one of them and walk right on by!  Eventually, it was co-opted by the Catholic Church.

The idea of receiving candy or "treats" dates back to the late medieval Christian practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door on All Saints Day (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2).  In a way, it is similar to the caroling scene in Shadow of Night.  That magpie Will even references it in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593) - We think we may know who put that idea in his head!

Traditional modern Jack-o'-lanterns
The Jack-o'-lanterns carved so beautifully by Sophie,that Sam and the teenage warlocks just had to come and see them in person, came to be from a tradition that originated in Ireland - except the first Jack-o'-lanterns started as hallowed out turnips containing a lit candle. People carried them on All Hallows Eve to keep away the evil spirits.  They are rooted (pun totally intended!) in the Legend of Stingy Jack.  What's Halloween without a cool spooky legend?  Well then, let's tell a tale, shall we?  Gather 'round . . .

Stingy Jack was a miserable, cheap old drunk who took pleasure in playing tricks on just about everyone - family, friends, his mother, and even one on the Devil himself.  The Devil was rather intrigued by Jack.  Stories of his misdeeds were getting to be legendary in the underworld.  The Devil, an expert practitioner of the famous Seven Deadly Sins1, heard of Jack, became rather envious of Jack's nasty pranks, and got greedy.  He decided his collection of wayward souls needed the addition of one Stingy Jack!  Now, here is where the tale gets fluid; there are a few variations of this story (ah legends...gotta love them.  It's like playing telephone!).  One version had Jack being well aware of the Devil's pursuance of him, and he thought that with some trickery he might be able to trap the Devil up in a tree to avoid being taken to Hell.  When the Devil arrived, he asked him to please climb up the tree for him and retrieve an apple - one last perfect apple for Jack to enjoy - and then he'd allow the Devil to take his soul.  The Devil thought, "easy enough," and up he climbed!  While the Devil looked for suitable apple for Jack's last meal, Stingy Jack quickly placed a bunch of crosses all around the trunk of this tree.  Unable to touch a cross, the Devil was effectively trapped!  Another version of this tale takes place in a pub.  Stingy Jack is overly drunk, and does not have the cash to pay his bar tab (according to this version, Jack never paid his tab).  The Devil, knowing just where to find Jack, appeared at the pub to take his soul.  Stingy Jack then begged the Devil to turn himself into a coin so Jack can finally show appreciation to the pub he's considered a second home, and pay the over-worked bar man once before leaving the earth.  Jack swore that afterwards the Devil could morph back to his original form and take Jack to Hell with him. The Devil, thinking that this was a fair enough bargain (he really wanted this soul!), turned himself into a coin; Jack - instead of paying his tab - pocketed the coin where he carried a silver cross. The Devil, unable to change himself back to his old form because of the silver cross, was trapped!  In both of these versions, Stingy Jack found himself in the rare position of the upper hand over the Devil. Adding insult to injury, he was rather self-congratulatory about his nefarious tactics! Eventually, after the repeated, needless taunting of his captive, Jack made his demand: the Devil was to pledge not to take Jack's soul after his death.  Only then would Jack let the Devil down from the tree/remove the cross from his pocket.  After reluctantly agreeing (he had no choice, really), the Devil acquiesced and relinquished the claim to Jack's soul.  Stingy Jack removed the crosses from the bottom of the tree/the silver cross from his pocket, and the Devil was set free.

Many years later when Jack's life finally ended, he went knocking on the pearly gates of Heaven.  He was met by Saint Peter, and scolded thoroughly!  Jack was told that he was mean and cruel, and had led a miserable, worthless life on earth.  St. Peter told him that the big man did not approve!  Stingy Jack was banned, and denied entry to Heaven for eternity.  Jack was promptly whisked straight to Hell, where he had to face his old nemesis, the Devil.  The Devil was adamant in his denial of Jack's entry. The Devil is a lot of things, but he is not one to back away from his word!  Do you remember how Devil loved his Deadly Sins? He was full of wrath, had abundance of pride, and protected his ego fiercely; he had not forgotten the embarrassing prank that held him hostage years earlier.  At this point Jack started really freaking out!  He had nowhere to go; he was to wander around forever in the darkness of the netherworld somewhere between Heaven and Hell!  He pleaded with the the Devil to provide some guidance in his bleak eternity, as there was no light to direct his path!  The Devil, despite himself, found pity for this feckless soul (the Devil did admire Jack's shrewdness during his lifetime), and tossed him an ember from the flames of Hell to help Stingy Jack light his way.  Jack just happened to have a turnip with him (it was one of his favorite foods - it seemed in all versions of this story he had a turnip handy!)  Jack hollowed out his turnip, and placed the ember the Devil had given him inside.  From that day onward, Stingy Jack roamed the earth without a resting place, lighting his way as he went with his Jack-o'-lantern.

If you happen to later seek out this tale yourself, we warn you: there are countless versions!  You'll find all kinds of stories about Stingy Jack. We even found one combining the versions we just told (kind of!  Even in that one the details diverge). The permutations are all quite entertaining, and all inevitably end with the same moral lesson.

And that, friends is how we wound up carving faces on pumpkins and sticking candles in them ... wait, what?!  Like all legends, this one traveled with its tellers.  In Ireland and Scotland, after wide circulation of the tale, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.  In England, large beets were used.  Immigrants from these countries brought the Jack-o’-lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States and Canada. With the wave of immigration - especially from Ireland, in the mid-19th century amid the potato famine - the holiday exploded.  Folks found that pumpkins, a gourd native to America, actually made great Jack-o’-lanterns!

Apple bobbing was one of the activities at the coven's celebration attended by Sarah and Em.  It may seem like a child's game but its origins are decidedly adult!  You can thank the Irish for this custom as well.

Bobbing for apples dates back to the Roman invasion of Britain, when the conquering army merged their own celebrations with traditional Celtic festivals.  The Romans brought with them the apple tree, a representation of a goddess of fruit trees and fertility, Pomona.

During the annual harvest celebration, young unmarried people try to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string.  The first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to be allowed to marry.  Girls who placed the bobbed apple under their pillows supposedly dreamt of their future loves.

And with that, we're off to greet trick or treaters at our own households, and munch on conduct quality checks of the Halloween candy!  Have fantastic Halloweens, everyone!

You still have time to enter our Halloween Giveaway!  It's international and open until midnight tomorrow night (Eastern time).

Here's something to feed your ghouly daemons with before we sign off for the holiday:
Halloween, With a Medieval/Early 16th Century Twist

1. "The Seven Deadly Sins" - Christians (since the earliest of times), have used variations of these vices as instructional tools concerning human tendency towards sin.  Considered fatal to spiritual progress, Christians were to practice virtue, and denounce the sins inherent to their nature.  The Sins in their currently recognized versions: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Wrath, Greed & Sloth.  The Sins in literature: In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, a parade of the seven deadly sins is conducted by Mephistopheles.

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