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A few years ago, I read a book by a tragically underrated literary genius, Madeleine L’Engle. An Acceptable Time is a comfortable resident on my highly selective Shelf of Awesome and one of only five books I have read more than once for pleasure (the other four being the previous books in this series). It deals with themes of mercy, tolerance, love, and forgiveness, a classic that I believe is still completely relevant today.

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It takes place leading up to and following the Gaelic holiday of Samhain (pronounced /ˈsɑːwɪn/ SAH-win or /ˈs.ɪn/ SOW-in), also known as Halloween. Samhain was a festival to mark the end of the harvest season and the start of winter and  was observed in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man while similar festivals were held in Brittany, Wales, and Cornwall at the same time of the year. It is still traditionally celebrated by Wiccans and Celtic Reconstructionists.

Mumming (acting) and guising (disguising oneself) and going door to door in exchange for food were a part of the Samhain celebrations. The costuming may have been a way of hiding from the Aos Sí, a race of fairies from Scottish and Irish mythology closely associated with Samhain.

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Samhain is known to have pre-Christian roots, but in 835, Louis the Pious switched the Roman Catholic holiday of All Saints Day or All Hallows from May 13th to November 1st. This made the last day of October into All Hallows Eve and the two holidays were eventually consolidated into the secular holiday of Halloween.

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Guising appears to have reemerged in Scotland in the late 19th century, but would not be recorded in North America until 1911 in Ontario. By the twenties, guising had spread to Chicago and by the late thirties, dressing up and demanding sweets from one’s neighbors became common practice as well as the term “trick or treat,” leading to the Halloween of this century!

So there you have it, a brief history of today’s holiday. Whether you call it Halloween or are like me and it makes you feel smart to say “Samhain,” have fun tonight and don’t get carried off by anything malevolent!

(If I got any of my facts wrong, please correct me. I love learning!)

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