Recently, this column offered a Hinesight History of Thanksgiving. Due to the unprecedented success of this article (no one wrote in to complain), I give you The Hinesight History of Halloween.
Halloween is believed to have originated with the Celts, who held a fall festival called “Shamhainiglub.” This is a Gaelic word. Gaelic is an ancient language in which a whole bunch of letters were strung together and then pronounced anyway the Gauls felt like. So the likely translation of Shamhainiglub is Halloween.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Nasty, brutish and short.” Nowadays, this means “a reasonable prediction for the current season of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
In Celtic times it referred to “every bit of life all the time.”
In late October, the Celts believed evil spirits roamed the Earth for three days. I don’t know why it was only three. Perhaps by that time the demons were saying, “Gosh, life here is really nasty, brutish and short” and figured there was nothing more for them to contribute. But during those three days it was necessary to protect yourself by scaring them off.
One way of doing this was, apparently, to place human heads on sticks outside the village.
A modern expert explains this custom as “a means of structuring, reinforcing and defending hierarchical relationships between communities.” Loosely translated, this means “scaring the bejesus out of the other guy.”
Later, actual heads were abandoned (as in, the practice was left off … at least I think that’s what it means) and vegetables carved with faces were used. The vegetable of choice was the mangelwurzel. I’m not making that up.
The proper way to carve a mangelwurzel was with a broadsword. You know, if Martha Stewart wanted to offer us real culinary excitement she’d go after food with large military weapons.
And a popular holiday sport was mangelwurzel hurling. By “hurling” I believe they meant “throwing,” not the other thing. Though not having ever eaten a mangelwurzel, I can’t be sure.
Eventually, the Celts realized they needed a less silly-sounding name for mangelwurzel and it was renamed “rutabaga.” At that point it seemed easier just to go with pumpkins.
Nowadays, children roam at Halloween. Those who wonder what connection there could possibly be between demons and children need to meet the kid two doors down from me. And now, of course, our strategy is to be as nice as possible. It’s the Canadian way.