Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween in the Southern Colonies

The American tradition of Halloween did not arrive in New England with the Puritans, whose more rigid religious beliefs rejected the Celtic customs.  It is believed that the origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain as practiced in Ireland and Northern France.  Pronounced "sow-in," the festival was intended to frighten away the ghosts of the dead who returned on the night of October 31st to damage crops and cause trouble.  The Celts wore costumes and built huge bonfires, using embers from the sacred bonfire to relight their extinguished hearth fires, a ritual intended to protect them during the coming winter.
The tradition of Halloween in America's earliest years was first practiced in Maryland and other Southern Colonies, where customs of different European ethnic groups merged with Native Americans' customs to create what has become Halloween in the United States.

Birthplace of Woodrow Wilson in Stauton, VA
On Saturday, October 27th, we were in Staunton, Virginia, to visit the birthplace and museum of Woodrow Wilson.  As we reached his birthplace and prepared to buy our tickets, we were invited to join a tour of the lovely town by historical society members Jane and Richard Hicks.  Jane's personal focus on her tours is architecture, although other guides may select their own emphasis, but architecture interested us, and off we went.

So, what does our visit to Woodrow Wilson's birthplace and an architectural tour of  Staunton have to do with Halloween?  Every year the merchants of Staunton, Virginia, carry on the traditions of early southern colonists, perhaps modified for modern times but with their origins in colonial time all the same, and costumed children fill the town's streets going from shop to shop to trick or treat.

I confess, Jane's tour was excellent, but the costumed children were a delightful distraction for me, and I paused many times to photograph the adorable kids in their wonderful costumes!  The name Halloween comes from the Christian holy day of All Saints' Day, which is also known as All Hallows.  Two Christian customs may have also contributed to present-day Halloween traditions.

The custom of baking and sharing soul cakes on All Saints' Day may have evolved into the tradition of trick or treat.  In countries from which colonists immigrated, soul cakes were often given to poor children who went door to door asking for them.  Rather than asking for cake, this darling little elf has her eye on a window filled with tiny candy ducks in a confectioner's window.  

Because it was believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints' Day, it came to be believed that All Saints' Eve was the last opportunity for the wandering dead to take revenge on their enemies.  To avoid the vengeance of enemies that had died during the previous year, people wore masks or costumes to disguise their identities.  That custom provides a possible explanation for Halloween costuming.  This young boy's transformation into a tractor is quite an effective disguise!
Isaac Werner had no children, and he does not mention whether the Kansas community where he homesteaded celebrated Halloween.  Neither do I know whether little Tommy Wilson (as Thomas Woodrow Wilson was known in childhood) costumed for Halloween, and perhaps his father, a Presbyterian minister, might not have encouraged that tradition.  However, the present citizens of Wilson's birthplace have a wonderful tradition for the children of Staunton!  Thank you to all the costumed children and their mothers who have allowed me to share their wonderful celebration with my blog visitors.  We fell in love with their beautiful city, set in the Appalachian foothills, with a charming and vital downtown, beautiful architecture, and the birthplace, museum, and gift shop of Woodrow Wilson.
It will surprise none of you that the souvenirs I selected in the gift shop were books.  We passed much of the time during our continuing journey reading about the 28th President of the United States, who knew when he was quite young that he had "a very earnest political creed and very pronounced political ambitions" and who vowed with a college friend to "drill ourselves in all the arts of persuasion but especially in oratory...that we might have facility in leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes."  (Quoted from a letter written by the young Woodrow Wilson)  His path to the Presidency was unusual, achieved not through a succession of political offices but rather through teaching, writing, and becoming the president of Princeton, from which he was recruited to become governor of New Jersey, and then was nominated and elected to two terms as President of the United States.  He served from 1913 to 1921, including throughout the years of our involvement in World War I. 
Woodrow Wilson retired from the presidency to a home in Washington, D.C., but I suspect had I been in his place, I might have returned to the beautiful Virginia hometown of his birth.  



The Blog Fodder said...

I love your history of Hallowe'en. Much I never knew before.
Re Wilson. He played a major role in the negotiations following WWI (see Paris 1919; six months that changed the world) but he also was a southern Democrat under whom Jim Crow laws reversed much of the progress made by blacks to that time. Statesman or villain, he certainly was a great man and his hometown is lovely.

Kim said...

I enjoyed seeing all the cute trick or treaters. When we were small and trick or treating for UNICEF with the Byers United Methodist Church, we always made stops in the country. We don't get many Halloween visitors since we live so far from town and most of the kids who lived close by have grown up. I enjoyed seeing these little spooks. Thanks for sharing, and Happy Halloween!

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Wilson was indeed an interesting and complex man. His advisor, Col. House, and his second wife, Edith, are essential characters in his story. Touring to build support for approval of the League of Nations, he suffered the stroke that led to his great decline in Wichita, Kansas. He won the second term by campaigning as "The Man Who Kept Us Out of War" and then became a committed war president. As you observed, there are two sides to his character.