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Halloween traditions, and stories behind them, make for spooky fun

Halloween with its various forms of fun, food and trickery has always fascinated me.

When I was a kid we didn't get store-bought Halloween costumes, although we did have a few hand-me-down store-bought costumes in the attic. Every year, somewhere near the end of October, my twin brother and I would sneak into the attic to go through the costumes our five older siblings had used over the years. There was a ballerina dress in the bin — most likely a real one passed down from my cousin, Joanne, who took ballet. There were glittery shoes and long skirts, simple black masks and there was an old Zorro mask and cape someone had purchased years before. We both loved that Zorro costume!

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Kids today probably don't have a clue who Zorro was even though he was one of America's first superheroes and the probable inspiration for Batman and Spider-Man, albeit one without real super powers. In the 1950s television series, called "Zorro," a Spanish man living in California donned a mask and went out to fight for the weak and underprivileged. To me, a kid watching lots of spaghetti westerns on our black and white television set, Zorro was just a fancy, caped version of my real hero, the Lone Ranger. My brother and I invariably fought over the Zorro mask and because he was a boy he usually won. That meant I went as a hobo or a baby with a bottle, easy homemade costumes.

I grew up in a rural area so the walk to go trick-or-treating was a spooky one with houses few and far between. It didn't help that my mom and dad never went along. Usually one of the older brothers was assigned to walk with us and they delighted in scaring us to pieces.

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An odd, older, childless couple from Germany lived in the farmhouse down the long gravel lane across the road from us. Something about the Blydensteins always made me shiver. Mrs. Blydenstein looked like the classic witch from "Hansel and Gretel" and when I heard her broken German accent my imagination went wild. She preferred staying inside with the multitude of cats she owned so we seldom saw her. Occasionally, we spotted Mr. Blydenstein when he was caring for their flock of sheep or — because he was an artist — setting up his easel outside to paint. As frightening as the Blydensteins were, we had to take that long walk down the lane because the spookiest couple always gave each child a full-sized Hershey bar and a bottle of Coke, something we never ever got at home. Later I got to know and love this couple and I still cherish a painting Mr. Blydenstein painted just for me — with a horse in it, of course.

Over the years, the Halloween walk became less spooky. My family didn't do much to celebrate but I do remember carving a pumpkin once when I was a teen. I vowed that my kids would have fun on Halloween, and I believe they did. Most of their costumes were homemade, but not cobbled together from leftovers like ours were. I sewed bumblebees and bunny rabbit costumes, witch's capes and other varied costumes.

I set about learning the history of Halloween and tried to involve my kids in some of the traditions that make Halloween fun. Trick-or-treating might be the most memorable tradition but there are also bonfires, costume parties, carving jack-o-lanterns and visiting haunted houses. My kids used to decorate our big wrap around porch to make it into a haunted porch. With our old 1800s house they had a head start in creating a scary feel.

The website halloweenhistory.org shares some history about our Oct. 31 holiday. The word Halloween is a shortening of All Hallows' Eve. It started with the ancient Celtic festival known as Sanhain, the site says. The festival of Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture and was a time for ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and prepare for winter. The ancient Gaels believed the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped on October 31 with the deceased coming back to life to wreak havoc, damaging crops and cause sickness.

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Just as the ancient Gaels burned fires during Samhain, Halloween parties today sometimes involve bonfires. The Gaels believed the fires attracted insects that would attract bats and bats appeased evil spirits. Masks and costumes were also worn in an attempt to mimic or appease evil spirits.

When my kids were young we went to the pumpkin patch annually and when they became old enough to carve a pumpkin on their own they each picked one to carve. I can't get over the beautiful designs carved into pumpkins these days with intricate templates available online to print cut and lay over your pumpkin as a guide to carving.

My curiosity is never-ending and I had to look up the history of pumpkin carving. According to the website www.History.com the tradition of carving jack-o'-lanterns started in Ireland where large turnips and potatoes were carved to look like faces, all because of an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack.

The story says Stingy Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him. Of course, Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy a drink, but once the devil was a coin, Jack couldn't bring himself to spend it. So he slipped the coin into his pocket. It landed next his a silver cross and that prevented the devil from changing back into his self. The story says Jack eventually did free the devil under two conditions. First - he wouldn't bother Jack for a year, and second - when Jacked died the devil would not take his soul. Year after year Jack tricked the devil into various awful predicaments. When Jack died, God would not let him into heaven and the devil — keeping his promise — wouldn't let him into hell, so Jack put coal into a carved-out turnip to light his way and has been roaming the earth ever since, known as Jack the Lantern, and later Jack O' Lantern.

I love learning the stories behind holiday traditions but more than anything I love spending those holidays with family and with friends. I hope you find a fun way to celebrate this one.

Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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