This year we are hosting an exchange student. Understandably, she is excited about Halloween tonight and asked us some questions “Do you have to dress up to get candy?” “Can I come with you guys?” and “How much candy can we get?” She had seen Halloween in movies based in the US, but wanted to know what it was really like. My kids were happy to explain the part about trick-or-treating: candy and dressing up sum up the Halloween experience. But where on earth did these traditions start? How did it evolve from a religious holiday into a secular, child-friendly event, that brings communities out into the evening? Before I present some fantastic pumpkin ideas to do with your kids, let’s look a little at the history of Halloween.
I have read several articles (I love the ones from The History Channel the best!) that venture that Halloween probably originated in Britain, Ireland, and Northern France, with the Celtic celebration of Samhain (=summer’s end). On their New Year’s Eve (Oct 31st), people wanted the warm summer weather to last a little bit longer and they would light bonfires and wear costumes to keep away the cold “death” ghosts that were killing their crops. With the encroaching Roman Empire, Samhain merged with Feralia (a day to remember loved ones who have died) and Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruit and trees who was symbolized by the apple).
When Christianity spread around 1000 AD, this holiday merged with All Saint’s Day, when people would dress-up in costumes of angels, devils and saints. While this holiday continued in the UK and Ireland area, the conservative Pilgrim’s did not bring many of the traditions associated with Halloween to the New World. Nonetheless, colonists did enjoy ghost story-telling, and playing pranks on one another. In the mid-1800′s, when many Irish immigrants began to arrive to the North America, they brought with them their traditions of dressing up and visiting neighbors to ask for sweets. This might have sprung from the British custom of the poor begging for food, in exchange for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. Another tradition shared by the Irish was the practice of carving turnips and potatoes, to hold candles. This practice transferred to pumpkins, which are a lot easier to carve, but maybe harder to carry around. By the 1950′s, trick-or-treating was revived as a cheap way to involve everyone in the community.
If you are looking to incorporate an international lesson into your Halloween, why not have your kids dress up as a historical figure or famous person from another culture? Some examples could be famous artists, athletes, royalty, leaders, scientists, musicians, etc. One thing that is very important, is to choose a significant person, and not choose a costume that is an ethnic or racial stereotype. Choosing an entire ethnicity to be embodied in one costume can be offensive and racist, and perpetuate stereotypes.
Instead, help children choose a famous person to honor for their skills, merit and ideas. For example, your soccer-loving son could dress as Brazilian footballer Pele, your budding politician could choose Argentinean Eva Peron; the list is literally endless.
This year my daughters were Cleopatra (68BC- 30BC), Queen of Egypt and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), a Mexican artist and painter. We had been reading a lot about ancient Egyptians, and I was so impressed when my son told my daughter “If she was rich and famous, you have to wear a lot of gold necklaces, remember?” When my youngest daughter was trick-or-treating, many asked who she was. In her little voice she would shout out “Frida-Kahlo-a-artist-from-Mexico-with-a-pet-monkey!” Even little ones can learn about historical famous people:).
Parents and ESL teachers around the world teaching about how Halloween is celebrated in the US and Canada might enjoy these activities:
Pumpkin Math: Small groups of kids can each work with their own pumpkin, with a hole cut around the top for easy access inside. Students can use different instruments (scale, measuring tape, ruler) to find out the following questions. Remember to first make predictions and guess the answers; then determine if they were close to the real data. How long is the stem of your pumpkin? How many ridges are there going around the pumpkin? What is the circumference of your pumpkin? How much does your pumpkin weigh? How many seeds are in your pumpkin? (use small pumpkins! Large pumpkins can have over 500 seeds!) Each pumpkin group can record their answers on a class graph.
Pumpkin Democracy: If there are more kids than pumpkins, have each child draw their idea for the pumpkin’s face. Create a “ballot” showing the different designs, and a ballot box. Hold an election and explain that everyone’s vote will count once in this decision, and the winning design will be used for the class/family pumpkin. This activity works well in the US, where political elections are held the week after Halloween!
Pumpkin Science: Tell the story of how a pumpkin grows: first you plant the pumpkin seed, then it sprouts. You must have water and sun for it to grow. The vines grow bigger, a flower grows. A small green pumpkin grows from the flower, and slowly it turns orange. It grows bigger and bigger, and finally it is time to pick it. From the pumpkin you can make a Jack-O-Lantern or a pumpkin pie. Kids can illustrate the story and label the different parts of the pumpkin (vine, stem, seeds, skin, meat, pulp, ribs, leaves). See if the pumpkins will float or sink in a bucket of water- try different sizes and different kinds of pumpkins. Make predictions first to see if you are right!
Here is a three-minute clip from the History channel for parents and teachers on some of the historical significance of Halloween. Have a Happy Halloween!