Ah, yes, Halloween is fast approaching. We all have our special Halloween memories from childhood, those beloved scenes of urchins strolling about in flame-retardant costumes wearing masks whose eyeholes never quite lined up with the eyes, of the houses we all counted on to offer the lamest of treats, and, of course, those other houses with no lights on at all meant to look unoccupied, but we knew the owners were home, oh yes, we knew . . . we could picture them sitting there in the dark, tensely waiting for the loud knocks, the rapidly pressed doorbell and the splatter of eggs to end.
Cherished memories all to be sure. But lost in the nostalgic haze and crass commercialism that has come to mark Halloween is the true meaning of the holiday.
The roots of Halloween date back to when the Santa Maria and the Mayflower collided one foggy night back on October 31, 1776, off the coast of Chelsea, Massachusetts. No one knows for sure whose fault it was. Columbus and Miles Standish both swore it was the one and not the other who failed to shout the customary warning of “Halloo!” required of sailors when plying an uncertain shoreline. Squanto, who was nearby, claimed he heard nothing but the rending of wood on wood that night, and historians generally agree that neither party alerted the other to its presence. However, when Miles Standish insisted to Columbus that it was he, Standish, who remembered to shout “Halloo!” Columbus derisively fired back, “Halloo when?” in his thick Italian accent.
When Samuel Adams and Paul Revere heard the story from Squanto, with Squanto imitating Columbus’ theatrics by shouting with frantic arm waves “Halloo-weenah?” as the punchline, it quickly became a favorite joke in all the taverns of Boston. If any two Bostonians got involved in a mishap, the tension was instantly defused when one victim would lift his hands up to the heavens and tragicomically ask, “Halloo-weenah?” There is even a passage in Betsy Ross’s diary indicating that “Halloo-weenah?” was George Washington’s favorite catchphrase.
“Halloo-weenah” took on added life during the infamous Boston Tea Party. As we know, before boarding the ship to protest the way the British spelled their words, the colonists disguised themselves. Samuel Adams went as Spider-Man and Benjamin Franklin dressed as the Incredible Hulk. As the colonists pitched each barrel of tea into Boston Harbor, they shouted “Halloo-weenah!” to “great cheering and immoderate merriment” according to the notorious pamphleteer, Thomas Paine. He later went on to write: “These are the times that try men’s souls. Halloo-weenah!”
And so, from that year to this, in commemoration of the fated collision of the Santa Maria and the Mayflower, we celebrate what has now come to be known as “Halloween.” No one knows where pumpkins and graveyard stuff came from.