The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 1, 2013

The witches of Halloween

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— As you read these words, another Halloween has passed us by, you may still be cleaning up toilet paper from your trees, hosing the odd dried egg from your vehicle, or diving into all that extra chocolate candy you bought for trick-or-treaters that still rests in a cabinet bowl.

Hopefully, my doctor isn’t reading this and asking me upon my next visit just why it is I’m eating all that sugar-laced chocolate from said cabinet bowl and wrecking my blood sugar levels.

Whether you call it Halloween, All Hallows Eve or Samhain, this strangest of all observances still kind of baffles most of us. And if you’re like me, you’d kind of like to know a little more background.

The easiest explanation is that most everyone has been trick-or-treating since they were knee high, and leave it at that.

But, I harken back to the words that truth most always is stranger than fiction.

Maybe you’re one of those who’ve read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” penned by Washington Irving, and caught a glimpse of commercials these days, depicting the headless horseman chasing Ichabod Crane with a jack-o’-lantern for a head.

Of course, this is mere fiction, and if I may say so, the post-Revolutionary War equivalent of a Stephen King novel like “The Shining,” “Christine” or “Carrie” — but set in the year 1790.

If you are looking for a scary image of Halloween that has endured over many years, look no further than your neighborhood witch.

And, judging by estimates there are between 2.5 and 3 million Wiccans — sometimes referred to as witches — in America today, one may be your neighbor or a relative. And for all mothers-in-law — no, I am not referring to you.

Of course the stereotype of a witch is a woman of haggard and warted face, wearing black and carrying out her wish to fly by riding on a broomstick.

But, going back into history past, there is much historical basis for this most eccentric of observances.

There are all types and manner of explanations for Halloween witches. Samhain was an ancient celebration held from sunset Oct. 31 to sunset Nov. 1 each year — a period halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.

Rituals to people like the Celts or Druids included bonfires, healing, dancing, thanksgiving and honoring the dead.

Samhain also was considered a time when the veil between life and death grows to its thinest, and food would be set aside for dead ancestors as a way to placate any returning-from-the-dead bad spirits.

It is said people eventually began dressing up as fairies, witches and demons and claiming the food for themselves, performing tricks in exchange for food and drink, and that this is the basis for trick-or-treating.

Sounds logical to me, since Samhain is mentioned prominently in pre-Christian Irish literature and mythology.

And to that end, it makes sense that poor peoples, who lived a basic hand-to-mouth existence, might look upon the laying out of food and drink for the dead as a good excuse to sneak a decent meal.

However, being a witch in early America was not something you would want on your resumé.

Everyone has heard of the infamous Salem witch trials, which occurred in Colonial Massachusetts from 1692 to 1693. More than 200 people were accused of witchcraft and the devil’s magic, and 20 were hanged or pressed to death by heavy stones.

Since the trials turned out to be pre-Internet-days mass hysteria, the colony finally admitted mistakes had been made, compensating the families of victims. It became a sobering tale of paranoia and injustice run amok among our early American ancestors.

It is thought the history of witches came about long before doctors and medicine became a respected profession.

Disease and sickness were very real scourges of mankind long ago, and sage women in antiquity learned the value of herbs and homemade remedies — the first natural and homeopathic druggists of their day. Many served as midwives, assisting women in childbirth and dealing with the accompanying pain.

As Christianity spread across Europe, many clergy of the day were quite upset about women dispensing remedies and helping heal the sick. They felt that was the job of men of the church, and thus placed societal stigmas on these women, essentially painting them as pagan and otherworldly — thus the witch and its accompanying taint.

Since these women worked outside the influence of the church, they were accused of heresy, devil worship and being anti-Christian.

That powerful imagery painted long ago has much to do with our understanding — or lack thereof — of the roots of Halloween and witches.

Now, where did I put that bowl of candy?



Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.