October 31, 1999 - Halloween

INTRO: Listen up guys and ghouls! This week VOA's Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble talk about some of the language of Halloween - which just happens to be today.


AA: It's a dark and stormy night. There's a knock at the door. Some kids are standing there, dressed in costumes. They're holding out bags. And they're yelling:

RS: "Trick or treat!" or "Happy Halloween!" What do these children want? Candy, of course!

AA: "Trick or treat" means give us a treat or we'll do something nasty to your house.

RS: Yes, it's a form of extortion, but it's usually meant in good spirits ...


RS: ... although Halloween is supposed to be scary, with spooky little monsters trick-or-treating alongside ghosts, goblins and witches.

AA: Lesley Pratt Bannatyne is author of a book called "Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History."

RS: She says that while Americans have transformed Halloween, its roots are ancient.


"You can go back 2,000 years to Celtic tribes in northern Europe celebrating the end of summer in a festival called Samhain, which was essentially their New Year's Eve. And this festival they invited the ancestral dead to, so there were ghosts about, and they tried to tell the future by asking the spirits what would happen to them."

AA: So how did the name Halloween come about? Lesley Pratt Bannatyne says it had to do with the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church.


"It was (called) Samhain and people were celebrating it, pagans were celebrating it, and the church came and said, well OK fine, we're going to take these customs of remembering the dead and we're going to sanction a church holiday on the same date. So November 1st is All Saints Day, November 2nd will become 500 years later All Souls Day. These two days were called Hallowmas. All Saints was called All Hallows, from `all holy,' and All Hallows Eve was the night before All Saints, or October 31st, [which became] Halloween."

RS: Lesley Pratt Bannatyne says early immigrants brought Halloween to America, but it wasn't until the late 1930's that the words "trick or treat" began appearing in popular culture.


AA: "What did they say before `trick or treat'?"

BANNATYNE: "They probably didn't say anything, because they weren't exactly doing that. They would put on a costume and go to a big party or they would go out and move outhouses around or take farmers' fences down so their cows would wander in the streets, or put rocking chairs in the trees."

RS: "Let's talk pumpkins. Pumpkins are a really big part of Halloween, but we don't just call them pumpkins, we call them Jack-o'- lanterns. How did we get that term?"

BANNATYNE: "That's a good one. First of all in old Halloween in Europe, there weren't pumpkins, because pumpkins are American. There were turnips and other vegetables and they did carve them on Halloween or All Hallows and they did carve faces in them, we think, to represent the ghosts and demons that might have been out and about. `Jack' is a folk legend of an actual character called Jack, someone who is denied entrance to heaven and hell and has to wander the Earth forever with just a lump of coal from hell to guide his way. So it's `Jack of the Lantern' or `Jack who carries this lantern' that we get this Jack-o'-lantern from."

AA: Lesley Pratt Bannatyne says the popularity of Halloween -- not just with children but increasingly with adults -- shows that Americans want some fantasy in their lives.

RS: And also a sense of community:


"It's the one time of year where we still open our doors to each other. It's a valuable thing."

ARDITTI: "In your neighborhood do you see kids from different cultures, different countries, learning this"

BANNATYNE: "Some of them don't know say `trick or treat.' They know enough about it to know they should stand there, they should dress up, they should smile and they should put their bags out when the door opens? But I don't hear trick or treat from everybody anymore. `Happy Halloween' is what I hear almost more than `trick or treat."

RS: Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, author of "Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History."

AA: And we wish you a boo-tiful halloween.

RS: Scary or otherwise, we'd like to hear from you. Our e-mail address is word@voa.gov, or write to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547 USA.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti. Now let's party!

MUSIC: "Monster Mash"