Pilgrims and Pies 2 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – Main Course and Desserts

Pilgrims and Pies 2 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – Main Course and Desserts

The feast continues…

Sarah Josepha Hale and Mr. Lincoln

Sarah Josepha Hale

After the American Revolutionary War, people continued to hold more days of thanksgiving, taking George Washington’s example at the conclusion of the Revolution, as a kind of celebration and a day to remember those who died during the war. But “Thanksgiving Day” was still not the holiday we think of today. Major US holidays, like the Fourth of July and Christmas, have become federal holidays for people to take off from work and school. And we have one person to thank for making “Thanksgiving Day” one of the first major federal holidays in our history…Sarah Josepha Hale (pictured to the right).

June 1867 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book

Sarah, a prominent editor and writer during the nineteenth century for the popular “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, (pictured to the left), was also known as the writer who penned the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. She took a keen interest in Thanksgiving, especially during the height of our American Civil War. For years she wrote about the importance of having a legal Thanksgiving holiday in her magazine as well as several letters to politicians in Washington DC. Finally, after so many letters had been sent out, it was President Abraham Lincoln who listened to her persistent requests at last. In November 1863, he sent out a legal proclamation (see excerpt below) letting it be known that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday in America and to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. After Sarah was pleased with her job well-done, she started to include recipes in her magazine on how to celebrate Thanksgiving and in-so-doing provided some of the recipes of turkey, potatoes and stuffing that we now eat as part of our Thanksgiving Day feasts today. Thank you Sarah and Mr. Lincoln for our Thanksgiving holiday!

Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation

FDR and “Franksgiving”

Did you know that for a couple of years Thanksgiving Day was not held on the last Thursday of November but instead on the third Thursday of November? Yes it’s true! Between 1939-1941 during the last years of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, tipped off by a general manager in retail, actually decided to change the date of Thanksgiving going against Lincoln’s proclamation decades before. This was an attempt to start the holiday shopping season early as, shock beyond shock, it was not commonplace to display Christmas decorations and retail items prior to Thanksgiving during that time (as compared to what it is like today!). This last-minute change in the holiday, derisively dubbed “Franksgiving”, caused such a commotion among the American populace that FDR ultimately had to sign a law in 1941 which declared that Thanksgiving Day would now and         forever be held on the fourth Thursday in November, which most states adhered to immediately. In any case, thank FDR for changing the day back to normal!  

 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Football Season

Some of America’s best-loved traditions, besides gorging yourself for an entire day, not to mention all of the lovely leftovers, have included staying home indoors with your extended family, watching a Thanksgiving Day parade or playing football outdoors. The latter two options you can easily enjoy from the comfort of your living room too! So now let’s see how parades and football have become part of our Thanksgiving celebrations.  

One of the longest-running and most famous Thanksgiving parades is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City which started back in 1924 as a way for Macy’s store employees to celebrate Thanksgiving as well as usher in the Christmas shopping season. Each year more floats, balloon creatures, marching bands, celebrities and musical theater acts add to the pageantry of this event, watched by millions of people across America. Its most noted claim to fame was its appearance in the original “Miracle on 34th Street” film in 1947 featuring actual scenes from the previous year’s parade. Santa Claus always closes the event, signaling to everyone that the holiday season has arrived! 

Thanksgiving Cowboys Football Game

The annual football games on Thanksgiving Day actually first teed off back in 1876 when the Yale and Princeton college football teams competed with each other. Soon other football and athletic leagues joined suit and by the time it was a professional sport it was already an institution. With the indoctrination of the NFL in 1920, Thanksgiving games became an official tradition every year since, headed by the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions today. So whatever is your viewing preference, you will find something you can enjoy watching to honor this day!

 Pilgrim Children and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

As with many cultural American holidays, Thanksgiving is something that American children learn about when they are in preschool and elementary school. Students are told the Thanksgiving story and re-enact the events of the so-called “First Thanksgiving” in school plays, dressing up in costume as “Indians” and “Pilgrims”, oftentimes having a small Thanksgiving party or meal as well as making handy crafts for parents (anyone remember tracing their hand and attaching colorful feathers on their pieces of paper to create a hand turkey?!).

And like any American holiday, what would be complete without an annual TV special! Since they were first produced, the Peanuts specials from the 1960s to the 1990s, created by the late comic strip artist Charles Schultz, have had Charlie Brown, Snoopy and all the rest of the gang celebrating our holidays from Halloween (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) to Christmas (A Charlie Brown Christmas) and several more. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving originally aired on CBS in 1973 and has been enjoyed by countless children and adults every year since (seen on ABC since 2001). Even this year on Wednesday November 26 you can watch it around 8pm PST on ABC (so now you know what yours truly will be doing around that time!).   

“A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” – Linus telling the Peanuts Gang about the “first” Thanksgiving

Contemporary Thanksgiving

Today, Thanksgiving is less a religious holiday and more about a time for family and friends to come together to enjoy a feast at the end of autumn. Some people even go out to help others less fortunate than themselves serving people at churches and civic centers across the country in order to provide a full Thanksgiving meal for those who attend. Thanksgiving also is the beginning of the holiday season and all of the shopping and merriment that will take place ahead (yes there can be stress too but I like to think on the positive side!). And just think it’s only a week away!  

So at your Thanksgiving table this year, whether you are enjoying lobster, ham or a “traditional” meal of turkey and stuffing, watching football or the Macy parade, going out or eating in, think of all that has come about to bring this holiday to your table for a true American pastime.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

“Freedom from Want” or “The Thanksgiving Picture” by Norman Rockwell (1943)

If you are interested in looking up some more Thanksgiving History try some of these sites:

  • http://www.plimoth.org/ A living history museum in modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts where you can learn and discover 17th century life in New England with activities themed around Thanksgiving in November
Pilgrims and Pies 1 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – First Course

Pilgrims and Pies 1 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – First Course

Thanksgiving at the Historic Plymouth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Hi Everyone, the Whisperer here at Areteem Institute is getting ready for another great day of relaxation at the end of the month. The Halloween season was wonderful but its still autumn, and although way too hot for our middle school and high school students here in southern California what better way to celebrate autumn than by eating! Yes I am talking about Thanksgiving!

Ah…Thanksgiving, that great holiday where you can take off for four or more days (kids these days sometimes get the whole week off!) to enjoy a wonderful feast that you can only eat once a year.

The Whisperer enjoys all of the favorites at his usual family gathering: turkey and gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green veggies and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. All quite delectable in their own good ways! We remember this event as the time when the Pilgrims,  a small group that numbered among many of the first settlers in the United States, enjoyed a meal with the neighboring Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, and had what we now call a day of  “thanksgiving” at the end of the harvest season. But how did Thanksgiving come about you might ask? What were the conditions the Pilgrims had to endure in their time? What about the food we eat such as the ubiquitous turkey? When did it become an American national holiday? Well just sit tight my friends, readers and students and we will catapult you through time to learn the history of Thanksgiving before the turkey runs off your plate!

Pilgrims in 17th century America

The people we now call the Pilgrims have also been referred to as “Separatists” as they did not believe in what the Church of England practiced during the 1600s in England apart from the rest of the British congregation. This group of religious dissenters assembled together and first traveled to the Netherlands to escape religious persecution. They came back to England and with the help of their soon-to-be governor William Bradford collected the necessary supplies and money to embark on a voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.

The Mayflower II, a reconstruction of the original Mayflower

After making all of the preparations about 102 passengers with Captain Myles Standish on board, set off on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England in September 1620. They had to endure poor and cramped living conditions out on the raging ocean, with many people dying on board. Land was not spotted until November 1620 which was a blessing for the remaining passengers on board during the long journey. Unfortunately their ship had gone too far north than their planned destination in North America and took several days by land and by sea until they reached the historic “Plymouth Rock”. Before disembarking they created a legal document known as the Mayflower Compact in order to set up a new colony and is considered America’s first step at democracy.

The reconstructed “Plimouth Plantation” in Massachusetts

 They established what is now known as Plymouth Colony before joining the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony several decades later. For the next year they had to learn to live off the land, growing their own food and having to endure constant sickness and disease with very few people surviving the harsh winter of 1620-1621. If it was not for a  native Patuxent tribesman named Squanto, who had learned to speak English from past British settlers, they would not have established their agricultural way of life.

 The “First” Thanksgiving

With help from Squanto and the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims were able to become more self-sufficient in their new home learning to grow herbs, fruits (like pumpkins!) and vegetables native to America as well as how to hunt and cook their own meat. The surviving 47 or so settlers of men, women and children were able to enjoy a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621, marking a year after their arrival in the New World. After the harvest had been collected, Squanto, Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and around ninety of his tribesman gathered together with the Pilgrim settlers bringing deer along with them while the Pilgrims hunted for wild fowl. Over a three day period they “entertained and feasted” (cited from Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation) , giving thanks to the harvest and of the year they had spent adjusting to a new way of life.


“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Governor William Bradford recorded this singular event, along with first-hand accounts of the Pilgrims’ and later the Puritans’ way of life from their arrival in 1620 through the 1640s in his work, Of Plymouth Plantation. Later Puritan settler and leader named Edward Winslow, who came after the feast, related about early life in Puritan New England, including a mention of the “first” Thanksgiving in his book called Mourt’s Relation, which he co-wrote with William Bradford. If not for Winslow’s book and Bradford’s accounts, we might not have known anything about what we now call our “first” Thanksgiving. Soon after the Pilgrims were settled into their new home across the Atlantic, they were joined by other members of the Puritan faith and so the seeds of the New England colonies started to take form. (A brief note to distinguish between the Pilgrims and the Puritans: the Pilgrims had “separated” from the Church of England but were still members of the Puritan religion while Puritans at large were mostly still linked with the Church of England and called for strict and conservative reforms from within).

A Picture into the Past – what the first Thanksgiving may have looked like

Onto the feast

So now we know about the Pilgrims, what about the turkey? Why is it a part of Thanksgiving? Although turkeys were indeed prominent and native to America, it may or may not have been eaten by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 or even the later feast held in 1623. Over time it may have been substituted being such a large bird found here in America to eat and has since graced our tables and has become a major iconic symbol for the holiday. An historical note of interest is that Benjamin Franklin actually proposed for the national bird to represent the new United States of America to be none other than a turkey. (Despite all of its delicious properties are we not glad we settled with the eagle instead, let Tom Turkey be the mascot of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day…but I get ahead of myself!)

Days of Fast and Thanksgiving and other Harvest Festivals

Now our American Thanksgiving holiday is not the only “thanksgiving” that has been celebrated before or since. We just refer to the historical event as a prominent recorded Thanksgiving Day which took place on American shores. Others had in fact occurred in the 16th and early 17th centuries by the Spanish and the British colonists who settled in Jamestown, Virginia. Also, the Puritans held their own “days of thanksgiving” with prayer and fasting as part of their religion. Our first American Thanksgiving was in essence a mixture of a harvest festival and a religious day of prayer. This is not something unique to the first settlers of America but indeed was practiced by our Native American ancestors to thank nature for her bounty and is a common festival that was and still is celebrated around the world with the end of the harvest season such as the one celebrated to honor the goddess Demeter in ancient Greece or even the Jewish festival of Sukkot. (Remember the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated in China from the September holiday issue, it was also a harvest festival). Canada celebrates a Thanksgiving Day similar to the one celebrated in the United States that takes place a month before on October 12th every year. But the question still remains, how did we make Thanksgiving a “national holiday”?

                                                                                            Stay tuned to find out more!

What is Halloween? – From Medieval Hallowmas and Dias de Los Muertos to the Present! – Part 2

We’re back to continue our thousand year journey through history to learn about Halloween and its unique customs and traditions. Let’s speed through time now and learn how Halloween has evolved from European Medieval practices and how it has been celebrated in early colonial America up to the Present-Day!

But first, let’s stop and learn a little about another noteworthy celebration that is a very unique incarnation of Halloween and not Halloween at all at the same time!- The Days of the Dead, known as Los Dias de los Muertos in Mexico!

La Calavera de la Catrina - Jose Guadalupe Posada

La Calavera de la Catrina – Jose Guadalupe Posada

When the Spanish Catholics started journeying to the New World in the 16th century and came across the indigenous peoples of Central America, they discovered that they had their own festival to honor the dead. The Aztecs, for instance, honored their goddess Mictecacihuatl who ruled the Underworld and believed that the spirits of the dead returned to visit them. They felt these spirits should not be mourned but rather to be celebrated. The ancient practices of this festival and other Mesoamerican traditions somehow merged together with the Catholic All Hallowstide and what came from these is the elaborate and colorful pageantry that is known as “Los Dias de los Muertos”, the Days of the Dead Ones, celebrated primarily in Mexico but throughout Central, South and even North America amongst Spanish-speaking communities.

The Days of the Dead in Mexico are a happy and celebratory time that makes light of the dead and the concept of death with all of the figures and costumes that come with this time. People prepare special food, like pan de muerto “bread of the dead” (pictured below left) as well as create beautiful ofrendas (altars) (pictured below right) to deceased relatives in their homes and in public spaces, decorating them with marigolds, an ancient Mexican flower of the dead, food and beverages that were liked by the person when they were alive. On November 1st,  the souls of children are believed to visit the living while November 2nd is the main festival Day of the Dead to honor all departed souls. Here people picnic amongst the gravestones of their loved ones, singing, dancing, playing music and talking with each other about times gone by. People are not mourning the fate of their own mortality but rather celebrating death as another aspect of life.

Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead)ofrenda de muertos

During this time at the end of October and early November, and even today in Catholic parts of the world, people visit cemeteries, as in the picture below in Mexico, lighting candles, bringing flowers and attending special “requiem” masses to honor their loved ones. One tradition that came from the medieval period that was practiced around this time, and even around other holidays too like the Christmas and Easter seasons, was ritual begging. In this case, the All Hallowmass begging was known as “souling” where children and the poor went door to door, especially to the homes of the wealthy, asking for “soul cakes” or food in exchange to pray for the household’s loved ones to escape the middle spirit realm known as Purgatory, where souls were “purged” of their sins, so that they could go to Heaven. This practice of ritual begging, which continued in other forms such as European mumming troupes, asking for money to build Guy Fawkes effigies to set on fire during the British Bonfire Night and the Scottish and Irish guising (guise being another name for costume) are all thought to be the ancestor to the American custom of children going around their neighborhoods on Halloween  night “trick or treating”.

Cemetery at Night on Day of the Dead

The “soulers” asking for “an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry/ any good thing to make us all merry” as one soul cake song goes, were adding to as well as re-creating a belief that spirits around this time could be appeased by providing food and beverage to the dead. So the trick or treaters we see around Halloween masquerading in costume are, metaphorically speaking, like the ghosts that haunt this holiday’s imagery, asking for candy in order to appease them. By wearing masks and costumes they disguise their identities in order to be someone they admire or want to be like, with some of the more “traditional” disguises of ghosts, devils and witches, all part of Halloween’s history, appearing every year. All of this in turn has become one of the most prominent customs of American Halloween (Really who wouldn’t want to wear a costume in order to get free food!).


Halloween Trick or Treaters

To speed things up, the “Catholic” Halloween was met with much opposition when the various “Protestant” sects came into power across Europe and England. As a result, its festivities were stunted and even the Calvinist Puritans who came to North America in the 17th century did not celebrate Halloween. However some parts of the United States not settled by the Puritans, predominantly in the South including Virginia and Maryland, where more Catholic and Anglican groups emigrated to, did in fact celebrate Halloween. In the late 18th and early 19th  centuries, autumn gatherings were popular for the first people of America where people would come together for dancing, merriment and preparing for the winter ahead with the harvest season and the making of warm quilts, among other activities such as fortune-telling. These get-togethers were known as “play parties” (see the painting below) with the British versions of these called Snap Apple or Nutcrack Night, featuring much of the harvest imagery we associate with Halloween today.  Even American author Washington Irving has his spindly schoolmaster Ichabod Crane attend one of these fall parties in the hopes of winning the hand of the wealthy farmer’s daughter, Katrina van Tassel in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

"Snap Apple Night" by Daniel Maclise (1833)

“Snap Apple Night” by Daniel Maclise (1833)

With the arrival of many Irish immigrants in the 19th century due to the potato famine, ghost stories, love divinations, witches, black cats, etc. were thrown into the brewing cauldron of Halloween. Long story short about why witches are part of Halloween is that they were thought to be evil practitioners of magic and so were seen as a threat to God and the Church. As a way to ultimately destroy pagan beliefs, the gods, goddesses and nature spirits such as faeries of the Celtic, Roman and Germanic traditions of Europe were corrupted into devils and demons in the medieval period as a way to steer people away from these so-called “barbarian” practices that were seen as creations of Satan, the adversary of the Christian God. People who still kept to the old ways, practiced folk magic or worked with elements of nature were thus seen as threats to the Church. For three centuries in Europe, from around the 1400s to the 1700s,  men, predominantly women, children and even animals were tried in court and killed, either by hanging (for a civil crime) or burning at the stake (for a religious crime),  for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. The famous Salem Witch Trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in early America, is a direct result of this persecution against so-called “witches”. Black cats became associated with Halloween as they were thought to be the witch’s familiar, either  a witch or an evil spirit in disguise.

The Victorians took a keen interest in romanticizing the past and so, like Christmas, “resurrected” and invented new traditions for Halloween. For example, the jack o’lantern was  used as a Halloween decoration. In Ireland, turnips, beets and a similar vegetable called the mangelwurzel were carved with faces to serve as lanterns and to scare away any evil spirits, like the ancient Samhain bonfires did centuries before. Pumpkins, a native fruit to the Americas, was in larger abundance in North America and soon people started to carve these into the jack o’lanterns we known today, becoming one of the major symbols of Halloween. You can look up the story of Stingy Jack (the real “Jack of the Lantern”) and his turnip lantern if you like!

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack-o'-lantern

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack-o’-lantern

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Halloween became more of a children’s holiday. To counteract much of the mischief and vandalism that was prevalent around Halloween night in the 1920s and 1930s, cities started to hold community-wide parties and parades along with “trick or treating” emerging as a way to keep children in line with the threat of a “trick” when not receiving a treat, be it food or money, disappearing into no more than the famous chant used today. It was not until after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s that Halloween became the way we know it today: children trick or treating in costume, attending parties and putting up fun and scary decorations. Despite fear over alleged contaminated candy and treats during the later 1960s and 1970s which proved to be mere urban legend, Halloween still came through as a popular holiday. In the latter part of the 20th century and into our own time now, Halloween has become a day for everyone, adults and children alike, where we can scare ourselves silly at creepy “haunted house” attractions full of costumed monsters, dance the night away at themed costume parties and get tons of candy!

So see there is much more about Halloween and its brethren celebrations than you thought you knew! All of these celebrate life and death, day and night, summer and winter and light and dark, the dual forces of nature that we have and will always think about, honoring, celebrating and pondering over what make us human with all the mysteries of the universe and whether there is in fact life everlasting.Nighttime Bonfire

And so I close by wishing you all a Happy Hallowe’en, Samhain, Dias de los Muertos and Bonfire Night!


Stingy Jack and his Lantern

For some good books on Halloween and Days of the Dead you can read:

  • “Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History”  and “Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night” by the renowned  Halloween scholar, Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (check out her website!).
  • “The Days of the Dead: Mexico’s Festival of Communion with the Departed” by John Greenleigh
  • “Day of the Dead” by Tony Johnston and Jeanette Winter (as a fun introduction to Dias de los Muertos)!
  • “The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark  Half of the Year” by Jean Markale
  • “The Real Halloween: Ritual and Magic for the New Millenium” by Sheena Morgan
  • “Halloween” by Silver Ravenwolf
  • “Halloween and Other Festivals of Life and Death” by renowned Halloween scholar, Jack Santino  (check out this article he wrote about Halloween on the American Folklife Center website!).

And many more!




What is Halloween? – Ancient Origins and Festivities for the Dark Half of the Year! – Part 1

Samhain- Celtic New Year’s Festival of the Dead


Hello my fellow readers, new and old, the Whisperer is back to tell you all about his favorite time of year as we slowly approach a certain date on the calendar. The nights are getting longer and colder, the leaves have changed into beautiful shades of red, orange, yellow and brown as they fall effortlessly from trees and the smell of pumpkins is everywhere (from pumpkin bread and pies to the famous Starbucks pumpkin lattes there is much to celebrate about this fruit (its not a vegetable)…but we will get back to them in a bit, I promise!).

To start off with Halloween is in fact the Whisperer’s favorite holiday! I love the masquerade side of Halloween and the decorations and treats and all of the fun and dark elements that are mixed together to create what we know of Halloween today as an American holiday. But then again what is Halloween really? How did it come to be? Why do we do the things we do at this time of year such as carving jack o’lanterns, putting up images of ghosts and witches and going trick or treating on the night of  October 31st?

There is certainly more to this day, and other fall and harvest-related festivals that take place around this time of year that many people may not know about. For certain though, despite popular misconceptions, it is NOT the “Devil’s Holiday” nor does it have anything to do with Satanism. Like many of the major holidays with Christian traditions, such as Christmas and Easter, Halloween has pagan roots that dealt with nature worship and veneration for departed ancestors (So yes the Christmas tree put up every year has ancient Norse origins before it became a Christian symbol, surprise, surprise!). So gather around the hearth fire my dearies and let’s go on a very brief and concise journey through time to learn about some of these holidays and their probable origins. The rest you can research in your good free time!

So, Halloween. Many scholars, historians and folklorists from around the world have agreed that the main predecessor to Halloween was  an ancient pre-Christian festival celebrated in Ireland known as Samhain (meaning roughly in Gaelic, the native language of the people of Ireland, “the end of summer”). It was a time celebrated by the tribal people known as the Celts at the end of their harvest season, bringing in crops and animals from the fields for the coming winter and one of four major “fire festivals” to mark major transitions in the seasonal year, in this case from summer to winter. Tribes came together to discuss business and politics as well as for feasting and remembering their departed ancestors as they prepared for the harshest season  ahead where death could be knocking at anyone’s door.

Pictured below is a contemporary Samhain gathering at the Hill of Ward in County Meath (Tlachta in Gaelic) in Ireland where Samhain was allegedly started and now is home to the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival!. Halloween is still celebrated as Samhain by many Neo-Pagan, Wiccan and modern-day Druid faiths and groups, harkening back to our ancient past by incorporating elements of a harvest festival and a time to honor the dead. It one of the most important holidays in the “Wheel of the Year“, splitting the seasonal year into eight equal parts, each with its own unique name, stemming from Celtic and northern European/Germanic festivals of the past.

Hill of Ward Halloween/Samhain Celebration

The Celts believed in a universal duality seen in nature and so split their “calendar” year into the “light” (Summer) and “dark” (Winter) halves of the year and Samhain, the beginning of their winter, was also the Celtic New Year’s festival. As it was believed to be a “time outside time” between one year and the next, people thought this created a portal and that the spirits of the dead, gods and fairies could come into our world, and likewise we into theirs and interact with the living, emerging from the mounds of ancient tombs, built long before the time of the Celts, that were later called fairy or “Sidhe” mounds seen across Ireland today (pictured below right). People looked to their priestly caste called the Druids for guidance as it was a great time for divination and communion with the dead in order to discover the health and well-being of the entire community and in some respects this group could connect our association with witches and magic makers with Halloween.

Bonfires were lit across the hills of ancient Ireland, starting from the Hill of Tlachta to the political site of the Irish kings at the Hill of Tara to surrounding areas. People would extinguish their own hearth fires and leave out food and beverages outside their home for wandering spirits to “consume”. They would then attend communal bonfires and festivities for three days and take a bit of the smoldering fire and bring it back to their homes, when the festival ended, to relight their own fires thus ensuring health and prosperity for their families in the New Year.  These bonfires served a dual purpose, so it is believed, to both welcome the kindly spirits of ancestors as well as to frighten away unwanted spirits (not demons as that is a Judeo-Christian belief!) who could possess or do harm to the living as well as to their livestock and crops (Remember that this was an agrarian society so a majority of their lifestyles depended upon working and living off the land so any blight or foul weather meant the community could be at risk. These issues were usually  blamed upon ghosts and earthly and otherworldly spirits, so people tried to best to appease them so as not to incur their anger). With all of these elements put together (e.g. ghosts, magic, fire, darkness and the night) we have the basic ingredients for Halloween.

(Sidhe) Fairy Mound

Later when Europe and the British Isles (the latter where Halloween was celebrated in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom as well as in Brittany in northern France) were being converted to Christianity in the early Medieval period, the Catholic Church decided not to abolish old pagan holidays altogether but to instead allow people to continue celebrating their traditions but now as worshipers of the Christian God. During the Middle Ages, the Church tried to incorporate “Samhain” and other pagan festivals together by giving people days to honor their dead but now as Christians. All Saints’ Day, a holy day to honor early Christian martyrs without a feast day of their own, was created to counteract pagan worship and came as a result of the re-commemoration of the Pantheon temple in Rome as the  “Church of St Mary and the Martyrs” by Pope Boniface IV.  Early Christians  first tried to “de-paganize” an ancient Roman festival of the dead called Lemuria around May 13 and so this date was set aside as “All Saints’ Day” .  Later the date of All Saints’ Day  was moved to November 1st by  Pope Gregory III to “de-paganize” the Gaelic festival of Samhain. It was Pope Gregory IV that extended this feast day to all of the Christian world at that time. This was the first step to create a Christian festival of the dead. Centuries later All Souls’ Day, to commemorate all people who have passed away, was then placed on November 2nd, after All Saints Day.

In old English, the word for “saint” was also “hallow” and so All Saints Day was known as All Hallows Day. The day before was then called “All Hallows’ Evening” or “All Hallows’ Eve”, the date formerly known as Samhain to the ancient and medieval people of Ireland.  Over time, especially with Scottish influence, this became shortened to “Hallowe’en” and soon became the day we all know today…Halloween. All three days were put together as a triumvirate, akin to the three days Samhain was supposed to be celebrated over, and it became known as “All Hallowstide” or “Hallowmas” by the Catholic Church. So we have the medieval Christians to thank for giving this holiday its modern name!


The Day of the Dead and Bonfire Night

Other holidays similar to Samhain and Hallowmas came into being later on. For instance,  in Mexico to this day people remember their dearly departed loved ones during the Days of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos), a  holiday mixing together ancient indigenous and Spanish Catholic traditions that takes place from October 31st to November 2nd, the dates of All Hallowstide in Europe. More on this wonderful holiday later…

“Across the pond” on November 5th, people all across England will be celebrating Bonfire Night, commemorating the night back in 1605 when the plot to blow up the Protestant-run House of Lords in Parliament  by Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators was foiled. Originally this holiday was predominantly an anti-Catholic one, with the heated tension between these two Christian traditions, but has now become a secular holiday for the whole family to celebrate out of doors on the night of. This holiday indeed incorporated some elements of Halloween and Samhain from around this time such as the prominent bonfires and begging traditions, however there is no concrete link to support this as people in England celebrate Bonfire Night to commemorate a one-time historical event- that of a failed political plot.

Our British compatriots enjoy eating toffee (caramel) apples, drinking mulled wine and watching elaborate fireworks (pictured left in London) and bonfire displays. One of the largest events takes place in Lewes, England (pictured above center and right) with various communities dressing up in costume, parading down the street with lit torches and setting on fire an effigy of Guy Fawkes, just like children had been doing years and years before asking for money shouting  “a penny for the guy” in order to buy firewood and materials to light bonfires and make Guy Fawkes effigies.  Most people outside of the UK know about Guy Fawkes thanks to the comic book series and movie “V for Vendetta”, but do know that Bonfire Night is quite popular in England and people love it just as much as we do for Halloween here in the States.


Guy Fawkes Effigy

London Fireworks Display for Bonfire Night


Annual Lewes Bonfire Night Parade


All of these holidays that are shown here, from Samhain and Hallowmas to Dia de los Muertos and Bonfire Night are unique in their own right but they do share some similarities: festive occasions occurring at the end of autumn and the harvest season, a time and place to remember the dead who return to visit the living and the lighting of many, mostly bonfires, fireworks, candles and jack o’lanterns, that are and were used for multiple reasons.


Samhain Bonfire

Tune in next time to hear more about the story of Halloween and other dark holidays from time of the Celts into the present day,  don’t fly off your broomstick yet!

Advice from the Whisperer- Writing the Personal Statement for College- Your Passions and Experiences


Hello again, lets continue with those college applications shall we!

To confirm all that I have been talking about,  we will be hosting a College Fair and Open House Webinar on Tuesday October 14th from 5-6pm PST/8-9pm EST hosted by yours truly! You can read more about it on our website here and sign up for free here!

Last time we were talking about how to write an outstanding personal statement for your college applications. We decided to break it down into three steps, the first being asking one of your teachers to help you edit the paper. So now we shall move on with the next one.

Topic 2 Highlighting Experiences to Show How Unique You Are

When looking on college admissions websites, you will find included under the personal statement section the prompts and other information that will tell you what colleges want you to write about. Mainly they ask you to write two essays with a certain word limit for each. The two prompts that colleges will most likely ask you to write about are:

1. Describe one of your passions or an experience dear to you.

2. Talk about something you have not addressed in the application, such as a challenge in your life that you know you have overcome.

You will notice that universities want to hear about you and the effort you put into analyzing why these experiences have helped you grow as an individual. These prompts are essentially the area in which you can shine in your college application as you get to talk about your favorite person in the whole wide world…YOURSELF!… Well, at least you should consider yourself to be your own favorite person, not to sound too egotistic!

Here you can write about anything in under one page. Yes it’s quite short but in the end college admissions representatives want to see that you can at least think about your own life and how you have changed. You can include anything from a favorite hobby, sport or activity you have or are still involved in. College representatives will take note of this section to see how well you can express your thoughts in print as you re-examine some aspect of your life that is important to you.

Hobbies Dance

For my essay I wrote about my love for dancing. No, it did not in any way remotely relate to Biological Sciences at the time (before I switched majors and graduated with my BA in Comparative Literature!) but Yes it’s one of my hobbies and I can write a ton about it as its one of my passions! I wrote about how I enjoyed dancing from the time I was little when I took ballet, tap and jazz lessons to improve my balance and coordination to when I danced all four years in my high school’s dance program. If it’s something you truly love, admissions staff will see that. Just think that this essay could in fact be the deciding factor for an admissions officer to select you over someone else. And don’t we all want that lovely envelope telling us we have been accepted at the college we wanted to get into? Everyone wins.

Hobbies Volunteer

Some of the best ideas to draw from are your home life as well as the ways in which you have reached out to other people in your community such as volunteer work (so yes all of those hours spent cleaning up at the beach, going to convalescent homes and helping students choose books at your local library were not all in vain!). In fact they made you a better person because you helped others. College Admissions want the kind of people that will turn into the leaders of tomorrow who are more caring, sympathetic and conscientious of the world around them.

To find out more information, look on your college admissions website as they provide much needed guidance in how to write your personal statement.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of writing an A for Awesome Personal Statement, don’t miss out!