DANSVILLE — Have you ever wondered where Halloween traditions came from?
Local history buffs recently found out some of those origins during this year’s Dansville Area Historical Society dinner program in the Daniel Goho American Legion Post on Oct. 26.
The program was led by Christopher Bensch, chief curator for Strong Museum of Play. Bensch shared 77 slides in about a half hour. Many of those slides came from photos and illustrations, as well as other items in the museum’s collection.
Bensch, who gives programs on about two dozen different topics, has had this particular program in his arsenal for about 25 years. He joked that he is the museum’s main presenter because, “I’m the chattiest one on the team.”
For the historical society program, Bensch began with “the fuzzy origins in the Celtic period in Great Britain.” Prehistoric Celtic rituals celebrated the end of summer on what is now Nov. 1. The early Celts believed that the veil between the living and dead was thin enough on that day that the deceased could cross over.
Bensch said that if you were on good terms with your dearly departed, “you might want to have some food on your doorstep, something at the ready for the spirits to consume.” Though if you were worried that the spirits were going to be a little malicious, there were parades to lead them out of town.
“So costumes, processions, food, all of the elements that we associate with Halloween go back centuries, thousands of years.”
As the years passed, the Celtic tradition was Christianized to honor the saints. Nov. 1 became All Saints Day, and Nov. 2 became All Soul’s Day, with Oct. 31 becoming All Hallow’s Eve, and eventually Halloween.
But how did Halloween traditions come to America? Bensch explained that it was a conglomerate of different traditions, and the Celts still had a role to play--carving turnips as Jack-O-Lanterns. But after the more-than one million Irish immigrants came to America during the Irish Potato Famine, the Irish discovered the American pumpkin made a better Jack-O-Lantern.
Other traditions include the Puritans’ witch paranoia (the Salem Witch Trials, for example), and their belief that real-life witches had a magical potion that made their broomstick fly. The American melting pot helped ‘stir’ superstitions from other cultures of the black cat.
“Black cats are part of the magical aura of Halloween,” Bensch said.
As time went on, parties were given in rural areas during Fall harvest time — which included bobbing for apples and so on.
Then, Halloween-themed parties began appearing with homemade crate-paper costumes. Among his 77 slides, Bensch showed a variety of photos and illustrations of home decor and Halloween party foods that began to arise over the course of the 20th Century.
From there, the popularity of trick-or-treating arose, especially during the Baby Boom era, and yes, included many ‘tricks' but eventually more ‘treating.’ Bensch’s program ended with a few examples of how the era of consumerism got into the act with Halloween tie-in advertising.
This was Bensch’s second program for the Dansville Area Historical Society’s annual dinner program. Last year, Bensch presented on various toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame. Bensch was mum on this year’s winners, but said they would be publicly announced Nov. 7.