Lamp pumpkin for witch

It’s a scary time of the year. We don’t just mean Halloween. This year there’s everything from our recently–arrived property tax bills to the folderols ongoing in the nation’s capitol. If that’s not enough, there’s the angst of finding (or not finding) things in Safeway (Thank you, Jon Rombach), getting tires changed, and living with kids on a sugar high for a week.

But if you are going to be scared of something right now, it might as well be sort of fun. Laughing at our fears is one way of addressing them, although perhaps not the most effective in the long run.

As psychologist Alex Lickerman has noted in Psychology Today, fearful laughter actually represents a denial of fear. He notes that “being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it.”

Whether chuckling at the goblins that arrive on our porches or at Trunk or Treat, or reveling at Halloween parties where we make merry while often costumed as fearsome unworldly beings, we would seem to be making merry amidst our fears, and in a way, fortifying ourselves against them.

Halloween’s origins are obscure, but likely come from 10th century Britain and Ireland. Most scholars and folklorists point to ancient Celtic rituals: the Festival of Samhain, which, in Old Irish is the name for the end of summer, and Calan Gaeaf, an archaic Welsh name for the arrival of winter. While the Irish were mourning the passage of summer on or about Oct. 30, across the Irish Sea the Welsh and Britons were celebrating the arrival of winter on or about Nov. 1, a date which is about halfway between the solstice and equinox. To these cultures, says University of Bristol historian Robert Hutton, this date marked the boundary between a world of light and productivity (summer), and a time of gloom and discomfort and often death (winter). It seemed a time when the boundaries between the here and the hereafter blurred, when darkness invaded the light, and when the souls of the departed might cross into the world of the living for however brief a time. These medieval customs gradually morphed into Christian traditions known as All Hallow’s Eve or All Hallow’s Tide.

To forestall the migration of spirits into the world of the living, to ensure an abundance of Christian prayers for lost souls, and also to ante up a bit of food if you were among the multitudes of impoverished Britons, the tradition of “souling” arose in the early 15th century. Households baked “soul cakes” and when a group of callers arrived at the door, they were given the cakes in an exchange for prayers for the departed who might, that evening, return briefly and invisibly to the dinner places set for them. Hutton also notes that soul cakes would also be offered for the souls themselves to eat, or the ‘soulers’ would act as their representatives when they ate the cakes.

The very old and plaintive English folk song “a Soulin’” made popular in the 1960’s by Peter, Paul and Mary was actually sung by “soulers” making their rounds on All Hallows eve (not Christmas eve) in Britain. (

It is said that British “guising, or trick or treating evolved from souling. Yet despite the long, storied history of Halloween, souling, and guising across the pond, trick or treating did not begin in the U.S. until about 1911, and did not become completely candy-sodden until about 30 years ago.

As we reach that tipping point when summer is finally overtaken by winter, and souls are unfettered for a brief romp through the summery world of the living this Halloween, remember to make merry and laugh at or with those outrageous and fearful costumes. And as your youngsters dive into their seemingly bottomless bags of sugar-powered energy, consider the candy bars and other treats as the soul cakes of the modern era, with good will for spirits everywhere.

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