Explain This To An Alien, If You Can

As I was walking to the store this morning, I saw several orange bags full of leaves and decorated with black ink to look like pumpkin lanterns. It occurred to me that this would make absolutely no sense to someone from another planet or even from another culture. So, I thought I would see if I could do it.

1) In our annual celebration of Hallowe’en, we sometimes decorate our houses. I will try to explain Hallowe’en later, but for the time being let’s just say it is a fall (or autumn) festival in which our children dress up and go house-to-house asking for candy. Actually, they blackmail people for candy with the threat of a “trick” or prank if they don’t get it.

2) We try to make our houses look scary, to go along with the theme of the event which is tied to ghosts and evil spirits. Yes, we are celebrating evil. I’ll explain why later.

3) One of the ways we decorate our houses is by taking pumpkins (which are harvested at about this time of year), scooping out the seeds, and carving holes into the flesh of the vegetable. We try to make the pumpkin look like a wicked face. Then we put a candle inside so that light shines through the holes, thereby making the face look alive. Yes, we try to scare our children.

4) At this time of year, we also rake up the leaves from our lawns and sidewalks. When we do this, we put them into plastic bags to put out with the trash. It occurred to us that bags full of leaves resemble pumpkins, but only if the bag is orange. So, we put our orange bags of leaves on display, and we try to make them look like pumpkins. It’s easier than carving an actual pumpkin and putting a candle inside.

5) Hallowe’en is a name derived from All Hallows Evening, from the Western Christian church calendar, if you can believe it. The idea was that the faithful should have one night (or three) to remember departed saints, or hallows. Actually, they can remember all the departed faithful, but saints in particular. Martyrs, too.

6) To regular people, the idea of remembering dead people conjures up ideas of ghosts, which in turn leads them to thinking about skeletons, the undead, witches, and all sorts of horror film characters. So, this concept of celebrating saints got really subverted along the way. Most of us see more movies than church services.

7) The church might get a bit huffy about us messing up their celebration, but that’s ok because it wasn’t really theirs to begin with. When Christians first came to Ireland they had to contend with the pagan practices already in existence. They solved that problem by piggy-backing on top of them and making them their own. Hallowe’en was grown out of celebrations of the end of summer and the beginning of winter in Celtic-speaking countries. The Celts called them Samhain and Calan Gaeaf.

8) Samhain and Calan Gaeaf celebrations included games and fortune telling, especially relating to death and marriage. People (called Mummers) would dress up as the souls of the dead in order to protect themselves from them. Apparently, the dead are not smart enough to recognize a costume when they see one. Anyway, the people who dressed up went house to house getting food, which is where we get the idea of giving away sweets. If they got food, the house would get good fortune.

9) The Scots’ take on this was a bit twisted, though. They turned this around to say that if they didn’t get food, something bad would happen. Hence the trick without the treat.

10) Pranksters would carve out turnips or mangel wurzels to look like evil spirits in order to ward off evil spirits. No, I don’t get the logic of that, either. In any case, turnips and mangel wurzels are hard to find in Canada and the USA, so we use pumpkins instead.

So, there you have it, we make plastic mangel wurzels to imitate evil spirits to scare children before we give them candy during the harvest season. Got that?


  1. Plastic mangel wurzels to imitate evil spirits to scare children before we give them candy during the harvest season. Oy. I’m going to have to write this one down to remember it correctly. HA HA! Thank you for this wonderful and informative post.

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