Halloween: A History

Happy Halloween!


Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and a big part of that was knowing the history of Halloween.  Thanks to an incredible movie called The Halloween Tree (it’s also a book!) I learned a lot about the history of Halloween and associated traditions.  In honor of my favorite holiday, let’s dive into the history of Halloween.

Halloween: A History

Before Halloween was a holiday for children to dress up like monsters and gather candy, or a holiday for adults to wear skimpy and/or ironic costumes to party, Halloween was All Hallow’s Eve.  All Hallow’s Eve, also known as All Saints’ Eve, comes the night before All Saints’ Day, a day to remember your dead.


But even before it was a Catholic holiday, Halloween was Samhain, a Celtic holiday celebrating the harvest and remembering the dead.  Because of the transitional nature of the season, going from summer into winter, celebrants believed that faeries, and the souls of the dead, could cross into the human world with ease.  These faeries weren’t the Disney kind though.  These faeries were malicious and mischievous, and in order to protect yourself and your family, you had to make offerings to them to keep them from, say, burning down your cottage.


People would light bonfires to keep away the evil spirits, and wear masks to disguise themselves within their ranks.  Although let’s be real, the “ranks” were probably just other celebrants.  (But isn’t it fun to imagine it was a bunch of faeries and demons and ghosts wandering around Ireland?)  Trick or treating began as a threat, that if you didn’t offer these faeries and other evil spirits a treat, they would play a trick.

Happy Halloween

When Christianity swept into the region Christian priests and missionaries appropriated Halloween, among other holidays, to facilitate easier conversion of the locals.  Ironically enough, later Christians rejected the holiday as pagan, from Puritans in the sixteenth century to modern fundamentalists who use “Hell Houses” to try to prevent sinning.


Because of the puritans and other sects who rejected Halloween, it faded to the background until waves of immigration from Ireland and Scotland brought the holiday back.  By the early twentieth century Halloween had once again become a mainstream holiday.  Complete with creepy children’s costumes ca. 1950s.


Of course, the United States isn’t the only place that celebrates October 31.  Many places celebrate the Catholic holiday, and many others celebrate local traditions.  The most famous is, of course, Día de Muertos – the Day of the Dead.  Because I have never celebrated Día de Muertos and I don’t want to accidentally insult celebrants, let me direct you to some great resources to learn more.

This Halloween, I’ll be watching spooky movies, listening to Dracula on audiobook, playing in the leaves with my dog, and probably not handing out candy as there are like 2 children in my neighborhood.  For more Halloween check out my All Hallows Reads recommendations, and the Legend of the Jack O’Lanterns.


Jack O Lanterns: The Legend

Jack O Lanterns, one of the most visible parts of American Halloween, have an interesting folklore.

The Jack O'Lantern Legend

According to Irish legend, a man named Jack had a drink with the Devil, tricked him into becoming a coin so that Jack could pay for the drink, but slipped the coin-Devil into his pocket beside a silver cross, which prevented the coin-Devil from turning back into his own form.  When Jack let him go, he made a deal with the Devil to prevent the Devil from collecting his soul.  Jack then made several of these deals, year by year, until he died.

Legend has it that, being the type of man who makes repeated deals with the Devil, Jack was not welcome in Heaven, but neither was he able to enter Hell because of his deals with the Devil.  So he was forced to walk the Earth for all eternity, and he had only a burning coal to light his way.  Being a resourceful man, Jack put the coal into a hollowed-out turnip to create a lantern.  He became known in folklore as Jack of the Lantern – or Jack O’Lantern.  People began carving lanterns into turnips or potatoes and putting them in windows to keep away the trickster Jack of the Lantern.

When Irish colonists came to North America they found pumpkins, which were native to North America, and began carving them.  Since pumpkins are fall fruits, and creepy stories became associated with Halloween, Jack O Lanterns became a halloween tradition.  Just don’t go looking for them on old country roads, or you might end up selling your own soul and taking Jack’s place!

For more Halloween spirit check out yesterday’s All Hallows Read recommendations, and tomorrow’s Halloween History lesson.  (For more about Jack O’Lanterns, see here).


Bog Bodies | Topics In History

Everyone’s heard of the Egyptian mummies.  And most of us have heard of the Peruvian ice mummies, unearthed 500 years after their deaths in the mountains of Peru.  But what about the bog bodies?

Throughout Europe, these bog bodies have been turning up, in incredible condition, for centuries.  The first recorded bog body was found in 1640 in Germany.  Early ones were reburied in consecrated cemeteries, because locals believed they were recently deceased.  It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that anyone realized they were ancient.

 Bog Bodies | Topics In History

Ancient peoples believed that bogs were entrances to another world.  A world where gods and spirits mingled, entangled, and ran free.  A place to deposit their most feared, most beloved, and possibly their most powerful dead.


The bodies that have been pulled out of these peat bogs are usually around 2,000 years old, dating to the iron age.  Over the past few centuries, peat cutters and others have found over 1,000 of these bodies.  The most famous is probably Tollund Man.

Tollund ManBog Bodies was unearthed in 1950 in Denmark, naked and curled up like a child.  He wore nothing but a leather belt and a sheepskin cap, but a rope hung from his neck. The researchers who worked on him did not have the capability to preserve an entire body; however, they did preserve his head and neck.  Before the body decayed, researchers were able to determine what he had last eaten (stew), and approximately how long after that he died (12-24 hours).  Several of his internal organs were in perfect condition.  Due to his incredible preservation in the peat, they could tell that he was about 40 years old, 5’3” (1.61m) tall, with short hair and stubble on his face, and that he had died from hanging.  But what happened to his clothes?  Why was he wearing a belt and cap but nothing else? 

It’s likely that he was clothed when he was placed in the bog two thousand years ago, but that those clothes were made from plant based fibers such as flax or linen.  Since peat is, itself, plant based matter in various stages of decay, the clothes would’ve simply rotted away, leaving no trace.  Other theories are that he was not afforded clothes if he was executed, or that his death was a ritual sacrifice, and clothing was not a part of that ritual.

Bog Bodies

Yde Girl By Ruud Zwart (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5-nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/nl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bog bodies are often deemed ritual sacrifices, killed by their own people, though a few, namely Kayhausen Boy, seem to be murder victims.  Yde Girl,found in the Netherlands, is frequently considered a victim of ritual sacrifice.  She was about 16 when she was killed, and stood at just 4’6” (137 cm) tall.  Cashel Man, at 4,000 years old, has provided the oldest example of a bog body with skin still intact.  Archaeologists have also concluded that he was a victim of ritual sacrifice.   In the 1980s, similar corpses were found in a calcareous bog in Florida, becoming the first American bog bodies.


We’ve established that bog bodies occur, and that many are preserved so well you can see wrinkles and fine hair, but how does that happen at all?  Well, let’s get to it.

 Peat, the substance in most of these bogs, has been used for centuries to thatch roofs, treat soil, and create bedding for animals in Europe, so peat cutters are usually the discoverers of these bodies.  The chemical construction of the peat, which is created during the slowed decomposition of vegetation and moss, creates a boggy, acidic wetland.

In one type of bog, the acidiferous bog, acid leaches into the skin and preserves it like leather.  But when this acid reaches the bones, it corrodes them.  Bog bodies thus end up twisted in strange manners, or sometimes appearing deflated, because of their decayed bones.  Essentially, the skin in an acidiferous bog is treated like a cucumber in pickling brine.  The acidic tannins in these bogs turned the skin into human leather.  It also dyes the bodies’ hair to a bronze-red color.

Bog Bodies

Osterby Man by Wikipedia Uploader Bullenwächter

In calcareous bogs the acid is more closely aligned to the chemical makeup of the bones, and eats through the skin.  This leaves bog bodies as perfectly preserved skeletons with little to no soft tissue left.  Osterby Man (pictured above) has only a small patch of skin, along with hair exhibiting a Suebian knot style.

The peat also blocks oxygen from reaching the bodies, which aids in the preservation process by preventing bacterial growth.


There have been hundreds of bog bodies found throughout Northwestern Europe, and they have provided valuable clues to what life was like in Iron Age and Bronze Age Europe.  We will likely continue to find them for hundreds of years, preserved so well you can still see the patterns on their toes.


 Further Reading

Continue reading

July In History: Week 2

Joan of Arc

July 7:

1456 – A second trial was held for Joan of Arc, 25 years after she was executed.  Her mother convinced the inquisitor, who convinced the Pope to allow it.  At this trial, she was acquitted of heresy, and in fact the then-current inquisitor applied a charge of heresy to the former inquisitor, who convicted Joan.  The new charge claimed that the old inquisitor used a trivial clothing law to convict her when really he was executing a secular vendetta.  Joan of Arc was acquitted, and became a saint in 1920.


1834 – Riots began in New York against abolitionists and the abolition movement.  They went on for four days.


1863 – The United States held their first ever military draft during the Civil War.  The rich could get an exemption, but it cost $300.  Later the same month there were huge draft riots in New York.  (But I’ll get to them next week).


1928 – The Chillicothe Baking Company of Missouri sold sliced bread for the first time.  The inventor of sliced bread, Otto Frederick Rohwedder, turned 48 the same day.


1946 – The first American saint was canonized – Mother Francesca Cabrini.

King Charles II of England

July 8:

1099 – During the First Crusade the Christian soldiers marched around Jerusalem in a religious procession.


1663 – King Charles II of England granted John Clarke’s request for a royal charter to found a new colony.  That colony was Rhode Island.


1853 – American sailor Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan.  He brought a treaty requesting the opening of trade with Japan.


1948 – The United States Air Force accepted their first female recruits.  Kind of.


1970 – President Richard Nixon delivered a speech to congress outlining the new official policy of the United States government on Native Americans: self-determination.  This led to a law in 1975.

President Zachary Taylor

July 9:

1540 – The Church of England annulled Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves.


1816 – Argentina declared its independence from Spain.


1850 – President Zachary Taylor died. Some people think he was assassinated by poison.  He was succeeded by Millard Fillmore.


1868 – The United States ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed full citizenship to all African Americans, and the right to vote to male African Americans.  It also guaranteed due process, a major part of American law.


2011 – South Sudan became an independent nation.  They separated from Sudan.

William I of Orange

July 10:

988 – The Norse King, Glúniarin, came to an arrangement with the High King of Ireland, Máel Sechnaill II, which founded the city of Dublin.  Glúniarin also agreed to pay taxes to Mael Sechnaill and follow Irish law.  (At the time called Brehon Law).


1553 – Lady Jane Grey became, for nine days, queen of England.  She is often considered so inconsequential that she is left off lists of English monarchs.


1584 – William I of Orange was assassinated in Holland.


1778 – The French King Louis XVI declared war on England in support of the American Revolution.


1921 – Belfast Bloody Sunday.  In Belfast there was mass rioting in support of Irish independence from Britain.  The rioting was met with enormous violence by British forces.  Ten people died that day, and in the next few days another 6 were killed.  This was one of the only instances in which there was out and out fighting between the IRA and the British forces.  The more familiar Bloody Sunday was in 1972.

Alexander Hamilton

July 11:

1740 – A pogrom forced Jews from Little Russia.


1804 – Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton dueled, and Hamilton was fatally wounded.


1864 – The Battle of Fort Stevens was fought in the Civil War.  Confederate soldiers tried to capture Washington DC, but they were rebuffed.


1921 – William Howard Taft, 27th president, became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.


1960 – Harper Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Rolling Stones

July 12:

1543 – King Henry VIII of England married Catherine Parr, his final wife.


1804 – Alexander Hamilton died of wounds inflicted by Aaron Burr in the previous day’s duel.


1806 – Liechtenstein became an independent nation, following the Confederation of the Rhine.


1812 – The United States invaded Canada as part of the War of 1812.


1962 – The Rolling Stones performed their first concert, at the Marquee Club in London.


This Week in History: July 1-6

I’m trying to bring this series back this month.  For each week of the month of July I’m going to make a post about historical happenings that week.  Each day has five items, with links to more information.  

Battle of Malvern Hill by Currier and Isles

July 1:

1837 – England and Wales implemented a system to record all births, deaths, and marriages.

1862 – Battle of Malvern Hill (American Civil War).

1890 – Telegraph cable made near-instant communication between Canada and Bermuda possible.

1942 – First battle of El Alamein (World War II).

1960 – Somalia became a free, independent nation.

President James Garfield

July 2:

437 – Valentian III became full emperor of the Western Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).

1679 – Daniel Greysolon de Du Luth led the first European expedition into what is now Minnesota.

1881 – Charles J. Guiteau shot President James Garfield, who died of his wounds 17 days later.

1890 – Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

1976 – North Vietnamese officials declared the creation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, uniting north and south Vietnam, and obliterating the Republic of Vietnam.

William the Bastard

July 3:

1035 – William the Bastard became the Duke of Normandy.

1767- Adresseavisen wasfounded.  It is the oldest newspaper in Norway that is still published in 2014.

1775 – George Washington took control of the Continental Army.

1848 – Peter von Scholten officially freed all slaves in the Danish West Indies.  This represented a successful year-long plot by enslaved people to abolish slavery in the Danish West Indies.

1913 – Confederate veterans reenacted Pickett’s charge, and were met by Union veterans offering friendship.

Lewis Carroll (self portrait ca. 1856)

July 4:

1776 – The Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

1826 – Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams both died on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

1827 – New York State abolished slavery within its borders.

1862 – Lewis Carroll began telling Alice Liddell the story that later became Alice in Wonderland.

1879 – British troops captured, and then burned the Zululand capital Ulundi, which ended the Anglo-Zulu war, and forced the Zulu king Cetshwayo to flee.

Twenty-Sixth Amendment at NARA

July 5:

1884 – Germany made Cameroon a colony.

1950 – The Knesset of Israel passed the Law of Return which allowed all Jews in the world to emigrate to Israel.

1954 – The BBC broadcast their first ever news bulletin on television.

1962 – Algeria gained independence from France and became its own nation.

1971 – The United States voting age became 18 rather than 21 with the passage of the twenty-sixth amendment.


Tune in again on July 6 for another installment of July’s history.

The Enormity of Time

Today I released a video on my channel entitled “Enormity of Time” about just how ancient the world really is.  History is incredibly ancient, and incredibly enormous.  When I have existential crises I often think about just how old the Earth really is, so I’m going to share it with you.  In the form of a timeline, and a video.

The Roman Empire was formed in 27 BCE.

Boudicca led the Iceni revolt in 60-61 CE.

Nero fiddled in 64 CE.

The Colosseum was constructed from 70-80 CE.

via Flickr

Parthenon via

The Parthenon was built between 447-438 BCE.


Stonehenge was built between 3100 BCE – 2200 BCE.

Great Zimbabwe via Jan Derk

Great Zimbabwe via Jan Derk

Great Zimbabwe was created, flourished, and crumbled between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries CE.

Harrappan civilization flourished between 3300 BCE and 1900 BCE.

Mohenjo Daro was founded in about 2600 BCE, and had city-wide sewers before anyone else.

Civilization in the Indus River Valley developed irrigation around 2500 BCE.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Cleopatra VII was born in 69 BCE.

The Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed in 2584 BCE.

That time difference is 2,515 years.

The first moon landing was in 1969 CE.

That time difference was 2,038 years, which puts Cleopatra’s birth 477 years closer to the moon landing than to the building of the Great Pyramid.


Let’s get way more ancient.  We outlived Homo Neanderthalensis 25,000 years ago, and Homo Floresiensis 12,000 years ago.  The humans who would become Europeans, Asians, Americans, Australians, et al began migrating from Africa 125,000 years ago.  Humans have only been on the planet for 200,000 years.  Which seems long until you put it in context.

Homo Floresiensis Reconstruction by John Gurche via

Hominids developed about 15 million years ago, but didn’t develop bipedalism until 3 million years ago.  So for 12 million years our hominid ancestors were quadrupedal.  Before hominids though, there were other primates, and they developed 85 million years ago.  But primates are only part of the mammalian class, which developed 256 million years ago.


How incredible is that?  Seems pretty ancient now huh?  Well I’m about to blow what’s left of your mind.

This streamlines evolution, but is a great illustration. via

Life migrated onto land 360 million years ago.  But before animals adapted to live on land, they had to develop brains right?  But they developed brains 190 million years before they became adapted to live on land.  Which means brains developed 550 million years ago.


To me what’s incredible is how short some things are in truly ancient prehistory.  It took 550 million years to develop from fish with brains to modern humans, but it only took 50 million years to develop from primitive multicellular organisms to fish with brains.  Multicellular life developed from single-cellular life 600 million years ago.

And the final way that I’m going to blow your mind is this: the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, and life began on the planet 3.6 billion years ago.


Boom.  Is your mind blown?  Mine is.  I’d really appreciate it if you’d watch the video above, because I’m incredibly proud of it.  And if you like the video, please subscribe to my channel here.


Saint Patrick’s Day

Sláinte!  Being partly Irish, St. Paddy’s has always been a big deal for me, so for this year I did some historical research about St. Patrick himself.

Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain, the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest.  This was not unusual given that the celibacy aspect of priesthood is a fairly recent addition to the priestly oaths.  There are multiple accounts of where he was from, so no one knows exactly where.  Some accounts suggest Cumbria, while others say either Wales or Scotland.  He was captured at 16 by Irish pirates, and pressed into slavery.  Before he was captured he was not, himself, religious or spiritual, despite coming from a line of religious men.  However, according to Saint Patrick’s own writings in The Confession he became a religious believer during the six years he spent herding sheep during captivity.  After those six years, he heard a voice telling him to flee, and he did.  When he reached the coastline he found a sailor who was willing to return him to Britain.  

Saint Patrick

Years later, he had a vision of a saint handing him a letter addressing Patrick as ‘The Voice of the Irish’ and pleading with him to return to Ireland to preach to the Irish.  

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

While in Ireland, Patrick converted thousands, according to his own writings.  Everyone knows the story of St. Patrick using the clover to explain the holy trinity, and that he drove the snakes from Ireland.  But I’ve read some historians’ interpretations that this was a metaphor for driving the pagans from Ireland or converting them.  This would pick up on the serpent imagery used in the Old Testament when referring to the devil.  

Children’s stories of the holiday make it seem that this was a simple task, but he raised a lot of controversy among the Irish people by converting the sons of kings, converting women who then became nuns against family opposition, and by not accepting gifts.  Gift-giving was, before the modern period, a way of tying people together, and keeping their loyalties.  Patrick also had trouble in Ireland because he was not himself Irish.  

Saint Patrick wrote a lot about his time in Ireland, and about all of the controversies and struggles involved.  However, since he was writing about himself, he was biased.  Other writings cast him in a stricter, harsher light, and claimed that he accepted gifts only from female converts, although Patrick claimed that he accepted no gifts, and that he paid special attention to his female converts.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  

One twelfth century story claims that Saint Patrick met two ancient warriors of the Fianna.  According to legend Patrick tried to convert them to Christianity and in doing so the story compares the two lifestyles: pagan warrior, and peaceful Christian.  

Saint Patrick's Grave

St. Patrick’s Grave in Downpatrick

When Saint Patrick died, on March 17, there was a battle for his body.  When the two groups who wanted the body for themselves arrived to fight, the river flooded, and when it subsided, they worked out their differences and each went away believing that they had won.  According to legend, the flood and subsequent peaceful resolution was the direct work of God.  

Along with Saint Brigid, Saint Patrick is considered one of the patron saints of Ireland and the Irish people both in Ireland and abroad.  

For further reading about St. Patrick, click here.