These beautiful hills of Appalachia were settled by folks from all over the world. In fact, Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee is famous as the homeplace of Melungeons, a group of people with mixed heritage, notably European, African and Native American.
But many of our cultural traditions, like carving Jack-O-Lanterns, came from the British Isles. In the old country, folks carved turnips to make lanterns this time of year. When migrants encountered pumpkins, it was decided they made much better spooky heads! And so, our modern form of celebrating Halloween by carving faces into pumpkins was born.
Halloween is also a time of change; the weather gets cold, and summer has officially faded away until next year. Folks like the Celts (a common source of ancestry for Appalachians) marked this time of year by bringing their livestock closer to home and settling in for the winter months. This was also the time of year to acknowledge and celebrate the spirits of those who had died. Samhain was the Celtic festival dedicated to these ancestral spirits. Our modern-day practice of dressing up in spooky costumes and visiting our neighbors, and of scaring the heck out of each other, has its roots in Samhain.
All Souls’ Day is also marked by an older version of Trick-or-Treating, when children went door-to-door begging for “soul cakes.” For each cake received, the children said a prayer for an ancestral soul. Today, over 85% of Americans give out sugary treats on Halloween! This holiday by far outweighs all the others for candy sales and consumption. (Yes, even Valentine’s Day!)
Bobbing for apples isn’t as popular at Halloween parties these days, but in Colonial America and in the old country, it was a way to predict who was getting married next in the village! It was like a wedding bouquet toss—only edible! The object of the game was simple: whoever bit an apple first would be the next to marry. Apples are a major harvest this time of year, and we still celebrate fall’s arrival with delicious apple cider, apple pie and candied apples.
Probably the most popular modern reason that families have for celebrating Halloween in East Tennessee is community enjoyment. Many neighborhoods go all out, decorating the yard, even cooking out on the grill with other community members while kids roam around Trick-or-Treating, dressed up in costumes and enjoying the festive atmosphere.
Not all the ghosts, goblins and spirits were left in the old world, though. Appalachian folklore is full of haints and boogers! A mixture of superstition, terrifying wild creatures (like mountain cats, called painters, that screamed like tortured women) and spooky, foggy surroundings make for the perfect backdrop for fireside ghost stories.
Appalachian Ghost Walks was a major resource for this blog on the great history behind how Appalachians (and most Americans!) celebrate Halloween. If you like history, and you’d like a spooky tour in our area, then go on one of their Ghost Walks.
Be safe this Halloween!
If, while you’re out trick-or-treating, you see a neighborhood you’d like to call home, visit DarleneReeves-Kline.com.