Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Pioneer-style Halloween

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Downed Bradford Pear Branch

Did you enjoy winter’s preview this past week?   What began with over two inches of rain and bouts of dense sleet turned into frozen water that thoroughly covered trees and plants.  Booms, cracks and whooshes filled the freezing air.  Heavily leafed branches of trees unable to manage the ½ inch layer of ice gave way to gravity and wind. Quite unusual to have an ice event so early, well before the trees had a chance to show much color or drop their leaves. The temperature hovered at freezing far too long.   

My house looked like a war zone, the aftermath of an ice tornado.  The cottonwood, which had been pruned extensively the year before, surrendered large branches left, right and center around the front greenhouse.  One almost punctured the plexiglass roof, but the plastic held strong.  The main greenhouse electrical line was barely missed.  Right behind the greenhouse, the lacebark elm split and landed on the other wire and top of the roof of the lemonery.  The immense horizontal branch of the Bradford pear I had grudgingly accepted.  It survived Tornado Bob in 2013 and offered a great place to hang bird and thistle seed feeders as well as hummingbird feeders.  That limb went down big time, smashing the back birdfeeder on the pole.  Feeders were repaired and repositioned as more branches snapped and plummeted to earth.  We dodged ice and tree missiles while cutting downed branches into draggable sections to move away from the house.

Tree Debris by house

The power was off for hours at a time (no running water or heat), no internet, no landline, no radio stations and no cellphone on two different networks. So quiet. While I worried out the greenhouses, our house was getting colder.  Time to heat up the fireplace insert.  On the grate was popped a smart log topped by old fire starters.  Matches lit the combustible collection and a little fire appeared.  The flames were fed with dry wood from the red storage container on the porch.  May not have had much light from the candles, but the toasty front room became especially bright when the insert door was cracked open.  Two candles were required to read a book.  Pioneer living.

Helga the Viking Witch

Today is Halloween…or Hallowe’en, Hallows’ Even, or All Hallow’s Eve. This day falls between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.  The old Celts in Europe called it Samhain (Sow-win in Gaelic).  The last crops were harvested, hearth fires in homes extinguished, and spirits became active. A time when the veil grew quite thin between the physical world and the spiritual otherworld. The Celts sometimes called Samhain the ‘Feast of the Dead.’  Quite similar to the Day of the Dead in Mexico, celebrated at the same time.

Halloween Spooks

Games and celebrations were part of the festivities. Trick or treating in the ancient Scottish Highlands and Ireland took place days before Samhain.  Hollowed out turnips and large potatoes were carved with scary faces and fitted with candles to dispel the darkness and offer protection against roving spirits. Plates with food were set at the family dinner table for deceased ancestors who were brought up to date with what happened after they had gone. Home fires were put out.  In Ireland it was customary to disguise oneself (Guising) and go “Souling”, walking from house to house singing songs and saying prayers for those who had died. Barmbrack cakes (soul cakes), a type of fruit bread, were then handed out.  

Bonfires were lit at sacred areas.  Summer was ending and dark cold winter was at the doorstep.  Originally called bone fires, these large fires were fueled by wood, crop remnants, personal things and sacrificed animals to ward away spirits seeking to reenter the earth.  As the flames died, people carried live embers inside carved turnips or root veggies back home to relight their hearth fires.  The next day, ashes from the large bonfires were cast over pastures to not only enrich the soil but protect next year’s crops.

Hard to believe in this day and age of electricity (hope you have power by now), cell phones, multiple media sources and a dependable food supply.  The ancient beliefs were rooted in the mysteries of nature, with which people lived much more intimately. Even today, an unexplainable unsettled, spooky, atmosphere arises during Halloween in fall and May Day in spring, the two times between equinoxes and solstices.  

Our American Halloween descends from both European and Celtic traditions.  Scottish and Irish immigrants brought many Halloween customs with them. Bats, black cats, ghosts and spiders rule the day.  If you see a spider on Halloween, legend has it may be a loved one watching over you.  

Jack-o’-Lanterns are hugely popular.  Pumpkins are very American.  This squash originated in the area between northeastern Mexico to southern USA.  Pumpkin patches and elaborately carved pumpkins take center stage.

Halloween took off in the early 1900’s, costumes in the 1930’s, and trick-or-treating appeared in the 1950’s.  Way back in Halloween of 1898 the first children in disguise appeared in Canada and 29 years later the Canadians were also the first to yell ‘trick-or-treat!’

Vintage Hallmark!

Setting out bowls of candy this Halloween?  Remember the vintage candies:  Hershey’s (1900), Oreos (1912), Reese’s peanut butter cups (1928), Snickers (1930) and Kit Kats (1935).  Hope your candy lasts longer than the first five trick-or-treaters!

Candy corn screams autumn and Halloween.  This confection has been around since the 1880’s. It is also the least liked candy at Halloween.  Who does these surveys anyway?  What do they know?  How can anyone not like sugar, corn syrup, salt, cocoa powder, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, gelatin, dextrose, sesame oil, honey, artificial flavor, yellow 6, yellow 5, red 40, red 3, blue 1, soy lecithin and shellac.

Shellac (confectioner’s ‘glaze) is made from the resinous scarlet colored pigment secreted from female lac bugs (Kerria lacca).  Lac bugs are scale insects hand-cultivated in trees of India, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Mexico.  Host trees include rain trees (Koelreuteria) and Hibiscus. The branches containing the resin and insects are cut off the trees, processed to 35% pure lac resin and sold as shellac leaves.  The leaves are dissolved in ethyl alcohol and applied as a candy coating. Yes, the insects are part of the ‘glaze’.  So natural, like bugs in flour.

Candy Corn. Can’t get much closer to nature than this.  For your Halloween party, make candy corn cobs using edible cookie dough.  Mix together 1 stick butter, ½ cup sugar, vanilla, 1 cup almond flour for a nutty taste or wheat flour, and ¼ tsp salt. Divide cookie dough into 4 pieces and roll into thick logs.  Chill, then push candy corn into each log.  Takes candy corn to new dimensions.

After the goblins have gone home, treat yourself to a scary, non-gory, movie like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”  My favorite is “The Haunting” (1963). Those breathing halls inside the ancient dark mansion still give me goose bumps.  


Frozen Halloween Windsock