Summit Spirits: The history behind Halloween
Editor’s note: This column is the last of a four-part series by Gail Westwood, local author of the recently published book, “Haunted Breckenridge.”
If we want to go all the way back to the beginning we have to travel back 2,000 years. Halloween started with the Celts, a group of people from Europe who held a festival called ‘Sow’ween’ (or Samhain). The Celts were considered pagans, or farmers, and this event celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark winter. It began at sunset on Oct. 31, ended at sunset on Nov. 1, and it was believed that the spirits of the dead would return to Earth at this time. Cattle were slaughtered and offered to those spirits to keep the people from going hungry throughout the long, cold winter. As time went on people began to put food and wine on their doorsteps to keep those spirits from revisiting their former homes and people disguised themselves by wearing masks. They wanted to make sure that no one confused them with the spirits.
Guising then became a common ritual when people visited each other’s houses, in costume (or in disguise, so as to be distinguished from the spirits of the dead), in the hope of receiving food or drink. In exchange, they would recite poems or sing songs.
By the 9th century the Christians named the Nov. 1 holiday “All Saints Day” or “All Hallows Day,” naming the day before as “All Hallows Eve,” which eventually came to be known as “Hallowe’en.” Nov. 2 became “All Souls Day” and people often exchanged “soul cakes” whilst they prayed for the souls of the dead.
In the 16th century, in Great Britain and Ireland, the tradition continued with costumed people going house to house collecting food. Three hundred years later the ritual hadn’t changed but now they were warning the owners of the homes they visited of misfortune if they were not welcomed or fed. This was the origin of the practice of “trick or treat.”
Our first record of using pumpkins occurs in Scotland in 1895 where costumed visitors would carry a lantern — a scooped out turnip. As turnips weren’t commonly grown in the United States the pumpkin took its place.
The first official record of a Halloween event occurred in North America in 1911, in Ontario, Canada. One newspaper there wrote an article describing children ‘guising’ around their local neighborhood. It was adopted across the Western U.S. and Canada by the 1930s and as time went by, spread across to the U.S. East Coast. The term “trick or treat” was being used by 1950 and now the event is considered to be for children only and is merely for amusement. Not surprisingly, Halloween is our second most popular holiday today.
Here is an excerpt from the story “Breckenridge’s Cemeteries” in “Haunted Breckenridge”:
By 1997, the land that was once the site of the old cemetery was owned by locals Jim and Maureen Nicholls, and they were approached to sell it. A developer was interested in building condominiums on what he considered to be a perfect site. The land was sold and excavation began. One of the first things uncovered was a small headstone that read “Daughter of W. F. and M. Eberlein, Infant, born and died April 6, 1879.” Research was carried out and it was found that the rest of the Eberlein family was buried at Valley Brook. Maureen Nicholls decided to have a recommittal service for the baby and arranged for a white casket to be made. In Victorian times, a white casket was the trend for a child’s burial and the pallbearers were usually children, also dressed in white. A horse and carriage was hired and, accompanied by several of her friends (some of whom were dressed in Victorian costume), Maureen marched the two miles from the original site to Valley Brook where a recommittal service took place, followed by a wake at a local historical bar. Baby Eberlein was finally reunited with her family after more than 100 years, in what was a very touching ceremony.
This event took place on Oct. 25, 1997. Six days later it was Halloween and Breckenridge had one of its worst storms ever. Winds of over 100 miles per hour stormed through the county and caused havoc at Valley Brook. Over 800 trees came down that evening, numerous headstones were knocked over and broken and fencing was damaged. The Victorian grave site of a local surveyor, Charles Walker, was severely damaged — in particular, the wrought-iron fencing that encased the tombstone. It was so badly damaged that the town of Breckenridge had to remove it and take it to a specialist forging company near Denver to be repaired. A father and son ran this business and, as the son had just finished serving his apprenticeship, he was given the job of repairing the fencing. His father left him in the basement, where their workshop was located, and told him to take his time. The father returned upstairs but within minutes, he heard his son cry out in shock and so he went back downstairs to find out what had happened. The son told his father that he had picked up his hammer and hit the fencing just once but, when he looked down, he saw that the fencing was completely restored. The father turned to his son and said, “That would explain the black shadow that just crossed me as I came down the stairs to see you.” Charles Walker, we assume, was satisfied with the work and from then on rested in peace.
Gail immigrated from England to the US in 1999 with her husband and two daughters. Originally a personal assistant, she had always had a passion for history and put this to good use six years ago by becoming a historical walking tour guide. She currently operates Breckenridge Tours with her partner Jamie, offering Ghost Tours, Strange but True and also living history tours. For more about this story see “Haunted Breckenridge”. Visit our website at http://www.breckghosttours.com or call 970.343.9169 for details about this story and many more told on our Ghostly Tales walking tour.
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