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Lore be gone: Five surprising things about Halloween

Published October 31, 2013 9:38 am

History • Author shares five surprising things about the 'most misunderstood holiday'.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lisa Morton wrote the book on Halloween. Literally.

Actually, she wrote the books on Halloween. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Non-fiction, Morton is the author of "The Halloween Encyclopedia," "Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween" and "A Hallowe'en Anthology: Literary and Historical Writings Over the Centuries," in addition to a whole bunch of Halloween-inspired novels and short stories.

It was never her plan to become one of the foremost experts on the holiday. A dozen years ago, she was finishing a book about a Chinese filmmaker when the publisher asked her if she wanted to write another.

"I had no idea what to do," Morton said. "I looked at their current catalogue and they were bringing out something called 'The Christmas Encyclopedia,' and I said, 'Hey, how about a Halloween encyclopedia? Nobody's ever done that.

"For some ridiculous reason, I thought it was going to be easy. And three years later … " she said with a laugh.

Morton wasn't obsessed with Halloween when she began the project, "But it has become an obsession at this point, I think. It has become a huge interest for me, thanks to that first book."

And thanks to the fact that she discovered so much about it that most people don't know.

"I think of it as the most misunderstood holiday," Morton said. "There are a lot of misconceptions about Halloween."

Here are five things about the holiday that might surprise you:

Halloween is not derived from anything diabolical

The idea that Halloween "somehow derives from a Celtic worship of Samhain, Lord of Death" is pure baloney.

Samhain is a Gaelic festival that dates back more than a thousand years, but the Satanic interpretation "came from one man in the 18th century who was a not-very-good historian who became obsessed with Celtic culture and just arbitrarily decided everyone else was wrong," Morton said. "At that point, historians had already established that this name, Samhain, meant summer's end. And this guy, Charles Valance, just looks at that and says, 'Nah, that's not what it means. It means 'lord of death' — with no apparent rationale or anything.

"And even though he was dismissed by his own peers at the time, he published this series of books on Celtic lore and they found their way into libraries all over the world."

It was the 18th-century version of the Internet — wrong information repeated so often it's believed to be right.

"And that started what I think of as the strange, alternate history of Halloween — that it's somehow diabolical and full of Satanic worship," Morton said.

Our Halloween traditions aren't all that traditional

"One of the other things that surprised most people about Halloween is how recent things that we love about the holiday are," Morton said. " People think that trick-or-treat, for example, goes back centuries. It doesn't. It goes back about 80 years."

Although if you take your kids trick-or-treating, it can seem like centuries.

"Even things like the colors black and orange are only about a century old," Morton said. "If you look at a decorating pamphlet from around 1910, it will say, 'The classic colors of Halloween are yellow and brown.'"

Halloween is Catholic — sort of

It's based on the celebration of All Saints' Day, although "the Catholics kind of changed it in the mid-20th century," Morton said. Originally, All Saints' Day honored, yes, all the saints, known and unknown.

"It used to have what they called an octave, meaning that it was an eight-day-long celebration," Morton said. " And it had its own mass. It wasn't until the 1950s that they kind of dialed that stuff back."

The religious angle to Halloween "is virtually unknown to most Americans."

"I think a lot of them don't even realize where the names comes from — a shortened version of All Hallows Eve. Which meant the night before All Saints' Day."

Halloween is not just for Americans anymore

While Halloween, complete with carved pumpkins and trick-or-treating, has been an American tradition for decades, it's spreading around the world.

"It is exploding in popularity around the globe," Morton said. "Just in the last 10 years, it has taken off in lots of parts of Europe and Asia and even South Africa, it's amazing how popular it's becoming.

"This is the first year I have seen a lot of interest in it in Australia."

The one exception, predictably, is France, where the celebration is seen as some sort of American cultural imperialism.

"They are the only country in Europe that has not embraced it," Morton said. "By 2004, their papers had declared it dead. They are very devoted to the celebration of All Saints Day in France — a kind of sober day where you go visit and decorate the graves of your loved ones who are gone.

"Lots of parts of Europe, they've separated the two. But not in France."

A Halloween merger is under way

"My No. 1 prediction for Halloween at this point is that we're going to start seeing it merge more and more with Día de los Muertos — Day of the Dead," Morton said.

The two are not one and the same, although the Day of the Dead — like Samhain in Ireland — corresponds to All Saints Day on Nov. 1.

"I think of Dia de Los Muertos as Halloween without the Celtic influence," Morton said. "They actually kind of stem from the same idea, where you had an existing pagan celebration and then the Catholic Church comes in and tries to co-opt that celebration."

And if you doubt that the Day of the Dead is being incorporated into Halloween, just go do a little shopping.

"Here in Southern California, I am seeing tons of Halloween merchandise this year that incorporates Dia de los Muertos imagery," Morton said. "It's so obvious with the bright, colorful skulls that often have the floral decorations, and I'm seeing that sitting right next to a jack-o-lantern."


Twitter @ScottDPierce