Monday, October 29, 2018

Is a Pre-Commercialized "Hallowe'en" Possible?

The Roots of Hallowe’en

Is it possible to observe a pre-commercialized version?

[Nyerges is the author of several books including “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and “Foraging California.”  Information about his books and classes is available at]

Recently, a few associates and I were discussing the strange customs of Hallowe’en.  Why has it devolved into a day of  fun and fear, we wondered?  We wondered how this once- Holy Day was commemorated before it was all commercialized into a scary night.  Is it possible to discover the roots of this day, and observe it in its original fashion  today?

We determined that we’d need to dig up whatever historical facts we could find that show how this day was commemorated before 1700, more or less.  Though we couldn’t be 100% certain, we at least assumed that “commercialization” didn’t really exist in 1700, and all the European and some American commemorations before that year probably retained some semblance of what the day was all about, originally.

So, first, let’s begin with the day.

It is believed that the ancient Celts observed something called a “Samhain festival” towards the end of October.  Says the World Book Encyclopedia. “The Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living at this time. During Samhain, the living could visit with the dead. Elements of the customs can be traced to a Druid ceremony in pre-Christian times. The Celts had festivals for two major gods—a sun god and a god of the dead (called Samhain), whose festival was held on November 1, the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

This day, or period, was to mark the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. 

Samhain (pronounced “sow-in,” which means “summer’s end,” or the name of a god, or both) is seen by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have died, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the dead are invited to attend the festivities.

Various sorts of activities done on Samhain have been described over the centuries. In Ireland,  Samhain was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies. Cattle were brought  to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures. Then, the people chose which animals to slaughter before the winter. After the slaughter of the animals, there would be feasting. And obviously, if you aren’t an animal-raising farmer, how would you celebrate this aspect, except for the feasting?

The Catholic Church was aware of all the so-called “pagan” observances, and had their own day to commemorate the dead, May 13. This began in  609 or 610 C.E., when Pope Boniface the 4th dedicated the Pantheon— the Roman temple of all the gods—to Mary and all the martyrs.  Later that date was changed by Pope Gregory III (731-741 C.E.), who dedicated a chapel in Rome to all the saints and ordered that they be honored on November 1.  This was done, in part, to overshadow the pre-existing Samhain commemorations.

In the 11th century,   November 2nd was assigned as "All Souls’ Day" in commemoration of the dead.   So this began the use of the term Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en for October 31.

Hallowe’en customs are similar to the observance of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, commonly practiced in Mexico and which can be traced to early Aztec times.  Apparently,  this “day of the dead” was originally commemorated in Mexico in May, and was changed to November 2 sometime after Spanish contact to correspond with the Christian tradition.


Trick or treating in modern times goes back to leaving food and wine for roaming dead spirits and ghosts. The custom was referred to as "going a-souling" and was eventually practiced only by the children who would visit the houses in their neighborhoods and be given gifts of ale, food and money. It was believed the spirits of the dead returned to visit their old homes during this time, so in ancient times, people left food out for them and arranged chairs so that the dead would be able to rest.  

Treats called “soul cakes” were given out in memory of the departed.  The Middle Age practice of souling — going door to door begging for food in return for prayers — became popular and is even referenced by William Shakespeare in 1593.  This is obviously the root of the modern “trick or treating” for mini Snickers bars, a practice no doubt loved by every dentist.

Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often used in the Samhain rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse's name.  Nuts were roasted on the hearth and then interpreted – if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.  


Celts would wear masks when they left their homes during the night hours during Samhain days, because they hoped they would avoid being recognized by the ghosts and be mistaken merely for fellow ghosts.

“Mumming” and “Guising” were a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales. It involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food.  It is suggested that it evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the aos sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf.  Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them.   One researcher suggests that the ancient festival included people in masks or costumes representing these spirits, and that the modern custom came from this.


Pagan Celtic priestesses and their followers would roam the countryside, chanting songs in order to frighten away the evil spirits thought to be out on Halloween night.  I wonder how that could be practiced in your neighborhood?


Bonfires  were a big part of the festival in many areas of western Europe.  Bonfires were typically lit on hilltops at Samhain where everyone could see them, and there were rituals involving them.

Bonfires comes from the root, “bone-fires” because the priests sacrificed animals and supposedly even people in an attempt to appease the sun god, while also looking for future omens. The fire was said to be a type of sympathetic magic, where the fire mimicked the sun, which has the power to hold back the darkness of winter.  Burning the fires was also believed to be a way of banishing evil, at least symbolically.


Divination has likely been a part of the festival since ancient times, and it has survived in some rural areas.  In part, this meant that the spirits,  the aos sí., could enter your world.  Many of the food offerings and fires were directed to the aos sí.   Or perhaps, some of the  crops might also be left in the ground for them the aos sí.    The aos sí.were addressed in various ways, with food offerings, with walks into the ocean, with the idea to hold off any mischief, and perhaps to learn the future.

The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.


So what do you conclude from all this?  Is there an ideal way to commemorate this ancient day, and still avoid the trappings of commercialization?  Is it even possible?

I like the way that the Day of the Dead is commemorated. There are altars with pictures of the dearly departed, and plates of good food.  Candles are lit, rather than a big bonfire which the local fire department would frown upon.  Families gather, and talk in respectful tones about their departed relatives.  Yes, of course, even the Day of the Dead has turned into wild partying in some quarters, but if you seek a return to roots of the ancient commemoration of the dead, perhaps begin here.  

Begin with family or neighborhood gatherings. Prepare a good meal, and keep in the mind the foods that your beloved departeds enjoyed. This is not necessarily because you think their spirits will come to eat (last I checked, ghosts don’t need to eat), but because having, for example, your mother’s favorite dish will give you another reason to talk about your mother, and to remember all the good things she did. 

This is at least a start, and it elevates our day of ghoulish and pointless fear-mongering into one that reconnects us with our roots.  

Friday, October 05, 2018

Kat High Talks about Acorns



[Nyerges is the author of "How to Survive Anywhere," "Guide to Wild Foods," "Foraging California," and other books.  He can be reached at]

In early October, Kat High, Native American of Hupa descent, shared her knowledge of the diverse use of acorns in native American culture at a lunchtime talk at nearby Eaton Canyon Nature Center.

Los Angeles residents might remember the few hundred shows on Native American culture that High produced for public access TV, usually filmed at Highland Park’s Southwest Museum.  Over the years she conducted many programs for the Southwest Museum, and was a consultant for their California Room, among other things. More recently, she has been a consultant at the nearby Autry Museum in Griffith Park for their  native plants garden at Autry, and the California Continued exhibit.

High, who recently retired after many decades as a physical and occupational therapist, has been active in local native American education and training for decades.  Her presentation to the docents could have been titled, “Everything you ever wanted to know about acorns.”

She began by showing a few examples of the many diverse acorns produced on the various native oak trees.  Native people would go to the higher elevations in the old days to collect the larger canyon live oaks, even though the coast live oaks were abundant in the valleys.  The reason is that the canyon live oak is about four times bigger than the tiny bullet-shaped coast live oak.  “If you had a family to feed,” asks High, “what would you pick?”

High demonstrated the proper way to crack an acorn. She placed one on the table, and with the little end pointing up, she whacked it with a flat rock, splitting the shell.  She also shared that, once the acorns are collected, most are stored for future use.  In order to prevent molding, they had to be dried out first.  She demonstrated that  you know the acorn is ready to crack open when you can shake the acorn and hear the nutmeat inside rattling around.  However, if the acorn sat on the ground too long, it sometimes gets soft and moldy, and no longer edible.

For all food uses of the acorn, the acorn is first shelled, and then the tannic acid must be removed. The traditional way is to grind the acorns to a flour, and then put the flour into a container akin to a coffee filter, where water can be poured over it to wash out the bitter tannic acid.   Or, the whole acorns can be boiled, changing the water at least three times, or until they acorns are no longer bitter.

Before she continued, she had everyone try some of the acorn foods she brought. There was acorn “coffee,” a brewed beverage made from leached and roasted acorns.  I found it tasty plain, though others added sweeteners to the hot drink.

She also served some “wii-wish,” which is a traditional mush made from the finely ground acorns.  Wii-wish is an old food, made by many Native Americans, and is somewhat plain.  Many times others nuts and dried fruits are added to it.

“Think of it as a ‘cream of wheat’ breakfast dish,” said High, “to which you can add milk, or honey, or raisins, or whatever you like.”  Though High didn’t think her wii-wish had turned out well, in part because she tried preparing it in a microwave, I found it tasty and satisfying.

She also served a large loaf of acorn bread, made mostly from acorn flour.  This was delicious plain, and it seemed that everyone enjoyed this semi-traditional food from the acorn.  High had some cream cheese that could be added as a topping. I tried some plain, and with topping, and both were good.

Kat High pointed out that acorns were often eaten with meat in the old days, because the high fat content of acorns was a good supplement to the low fat content of game meat. 

She described the granaries that were constructed by native people of the past for storing acorns.  Since acorns could only be collected in the fall, anytime between October and December, depending on the season, families would collect all they could during this time. A single family might collect up to a ton of acorns for the year, and store them in containers that looked like silos or large baskets, made from the willow branches. The salicin in the willow was a pest-repellant, said High, and the bay leaves used to line the silos also helped to repel insects and rodents.

High also shared some of the many uses of acorns and acorn caps, besides food.

She showed acorns which had a short skewer inserted into the narrow end, and they were spun as tops by children.  Another game was made from acorn caps, where the caps were cut so that they were rings.  These acorn rings were then all tied onto a string, which was tied to a long stick, and one would try to flip the acorn rings onto the stick.

High also showed a variety of modern acorn crafts, such as acorn earrings, and small acorn cap candles.

“When the Spanish came here,” High told the group, “they described Southern California as looking like a well-tended garden.  That’s because it was,” she told he crowd.  The land had been managed for millennia by a series of practices that only-recently have been more studied and described in such books as “Tending the Wild” (by M. Kat Anderson).

When the Spanish came here, says High, they saw this land as a park-like paradise, and then recruited the local Indians to build the missions and run the farms, which destroyed the Native way of life.  Cattle-raising was most destructive to land and waterways, and the land soon became unable to support the tradition Native lifestyle.

What now? Asks High.  How do we regain our balance with the land? 

Her advice is to learn about the Native uses of plants, and to use them with respect.  “Always offer a prayer when you gather,” says High.  “Ask permission from the plant, don’t deplete an area, and give the plant your intent for picking it.” 

Kat High now teaches classes and workshop on Native skills and caring for the land. She can be reached at 

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Excerpt from "Til Death Do Us Part?"

Note:  DOLORES would have been 72 years old today.  (She passed away 10 years ago).

This is an excerpt from the book that she inspired, “Til Death Do Us Part?”   The book can be purchased from Kindle, or from our store at

However, during October 2018, you can request a FREE COPY of this book to be sent to you.  Send us an email to and request this informative and useful book! 


It was a sunny and brisk day as Dolores and I walked up the steep stony driveway to the WTI headquarters.  We were going to the annual Memorial Day gathering, which would be held outdoors.  Neither of us had been involved in the preparation of this event (as we had with other events), so we were coming as “guests” with no idea what the agenda would be.

When we reached the top, we could see that several others had already arrived.  Prudence approached us as I was scanning the book, and she handed each of us a hot cup of their special coffee.

“Thanks,” I said, taking a long sip.  “That sure hits the spot.”

Dolores and I said hello to the dozen other guests who were sitting on chairs, or reading from a pink paper.  Timothy approached Dolores and I and handed each of us a copy of something printed on pink paper.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, smiling broadly with his charismatic smile.  “Once those instructions are clear, you should go to a private spot with your notebook.   We’ll all meet back here in 30 minutes.”

“OK,” I said. We both studied the paper as Timothy stood there.

I quickly read the instructions.  We were to select three living “loved-ones” and write their names in our notebook. We were then to go sit under a bush, or sit in some private spot somewhere on the hilltop.  Next, we were  to mentally imagine that we get a phone call, and someone tells us that one of the people on our list have died.  Each of us  was to feel and experience the grief as if that person really died, and attempt to make it real.  With the full feeling of grief, we were to write down all those things that we wished we’d told that person before they died.  We were to do this exercise with all three of the people on our list.

“Any questions?” asked Timothy, still standing in front of us, but now he was  beginning to look around as other guests arrived. 

“It seems pretty clear,” I said, thinking to myself that this was an unusual exercise. 

“Seems clear enough,” added Dolores.

“Oh, one more thing,” said Timothy.  “It doesn’t say this on your paper, but it would be good if at least one person on your list of three is someone who is here today.” 

“OK,” I responded.  I knew that my father would be on my list, and so would Dolores. 

I walked up the rough steps which led to the upper portion of the property, and I sat myself under an old citrus tree.  It was one of my favorite spots on the property because I always felt very “invisible” there, yet I had a terrific view of the surrounding neighborhood.

I began my list.  I wrote down Dolores, Prudence, and my father.  I then closed my eyes, and imagined that I just received a call from my brother telling me that my father had died.  I let it hit me that he was gone, dead, out of my life.  I began to cry involuntarily.  My mind automatically thought back to the earliest childhood memories of my father cutting the lawn, and taking me with him in the station wagon to the supermarket.  I remembered the things I did wrong, and was punished for, and my mind went through a non-chronological review of various events. I attempted to mentally do a chronological review, but found it easier to just let the memories flow.  I began to laugh at some memories, such as the way he and my mother would argue whenever the family was getting ready to go to the local beach for the day.  My mother seemingly wanted to pack everything from the kitchen into the station wagon, and my father – with great pantomime -- would express his desire to do it as simply as possible. I remembered how upset my father would get when my mother called him a gypsy, an insult to a Hungarian.

I realized my father was by no means perfect, and yet I could see he tried to do what was right, despite his many weaknesses or deficiencies.  I found myself missing him terribly, in spite of the fact that he was still alive and  I had not called him for over a month.

I began to do the same with Dolores and Prudence.  Dolores and I hadn’t yet married, though we were both very interested in one another and enjoyed each other’s friendship and company.  Still, we had already experienced several “rough spots” together.  I looked at my watch and saw that I had already been there over 30 minutes, so I quickly finished writing my notes and then headed back down to the gathering.

Most everyone was already back down at the gathering site, and were serving themselves from the delicious dishes that everyone provided.  I began to serve myself a smaller than usual dish.  I still felt very “shaken up” by my brief but intensive experience of  “hearing that my father had died.”

Once everyone had returned and served themselves a dish and a mug, Timothy  shared a few prepared readings about Memorial Day and the nature of death,  mostly writings by Shining Bear, as well as some passages from Alexander Solszynitzn’s classic book where he told the story of his time in the Soviet Union’s prison camps, Gulag Archipelago.

Then we got to the part where Timothy asked each person to briefly share their experiences with their list of three people.  A few people said they had experienced nothing worthy of sharing, which I found remarkable. Perhaps they were embarrassed in the unfamiliar setting and did not want to share a deeply personal experience.  I could understand not wanting to share deeply personal things in an unfamiliar public setting. But I could not believe that anyone who actually performed the prescribed exercise would have had no worthwhile experience.

Prudence’s son spoke of the experience of someone telling him his father had passed away and how sad he felt.  He shared a few of the things he would tell his father.

“I’m going to tell him that I love him, and I’m going to pay him back that money I borrowed from him last year,” he said with great enthusiasm. Everyone laughed.

Once each person briefly shared their varied experiences, Timothy then got back in front and, with his charismatic smile, announced that everyone now would have a rare opportunity. 

“You’ve all just done what most people do when they learn that someone they love has died.  However, all these people are still here.  Now you need to tell them today those things that you’d regret not telling them if they died.  We have two phones here, so whomever wants to use them may do so now.”  [Note: this was before the days of universal cell phones.]

A few people got up and went inside to call someone.

“Or, you can write a short note or letter right now,” Timothy declared.  “If you don’t have any stationery, we have lots of paper and envelopes that you can use.”  He pointed to the wooden table behind him where there was a can full of pens and pencils, a small stack of envelopes, and an assortment of stationery paper.

“Now, if the person is here now,” Timothy continued, “I want the two of you to go to a private place and you can tell that person whatever it is that you want them to hear.  Don’t be embarrassed.  We’ll all meet back here together in about 30 minutes and share that experience.”

I was a bit hesitant to do this next step.  It would be risky. It’s always risky to be completely honest and  open.   Nevertheless, I first went with Prudence to a private spot.  It turns out that she also chose me, so we were able to “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak.

My private-talk with Prudence went well, and both of us shared a few past unresolved issues that bothered us, and tried to make amends for some old hard feelings. We were both fairly open and blunt in both our criticism and praise of the other, and we were able to agree on a few simple steps we could do to bring things to a state of balance.  I was satisfied with this experience.  Next, I did the same thing with Dolores.

After a few minutes, everyone gathered again in the central outdoor meeting place. Prudence read a few passages from a book about death.  I took a few notes as I listened, and also looked around at the expressions of those gathered there that day.  I felt very much “startled awake,” and I could tell that most everyone had had some sort of eye-opening epiphany about life and death and how quickly it all passes. 

I was experiencing an inner turmoil, a bit apprehensive about my plan to talk to my father later in the day.  I was also very reflective about all the choices I make day in and out, and how everyone else affects me, and how I affect everyone else. Especially Dolores.  How to do it all “just right,” all the time, I wondered?  How can I live my life without regrets?  I wondered, was everyone else feeling such inner turmoil, and inner challenge? 

Finally, Timothy made a few closing remarks, shared a few upcoming events, and thanked everyone for coming.  It had been several hours but it flowed so quickly. 



That evening, I called my father, and asked him if he had a minute.
“Sure,” he said, “what’s up?”

“I just wanted you to know that I really have appreciated all the things you’ve done for me all my life.  I know that at times I have seemed very disrespectful, but I….

“Is something wrong?” he asked.  “Do you need money?”

“No, no, no. I don’t need money. No, nothing’s wrong. I was just thinking about you today, and how we never talk, and I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate you and really love you.”

I think that was the first time I ever told my father that I loved him.

“What’s wrong,” he asked more firmly, “are you in some sort of trouble?”

“No, I’m not in any trouble at all, I just…”

“This doesn’t sound like you, something must be wrong…”

“No, nothing’s wrong.  I just realized that we rarely talk. Today seemed like as good a day as any to tell you that I appreciate you.”  I had momentarily thought that I would explain to him that I’d attended the event earlier in the day, and let him know that he was part of my exercise.  But somehow, if I did that, I felt it would diminish what I was saying to my father, that it was some sort of school assignment or exercise.  Rather than regard it as something genuine coming from me, he would think that I was in the clutches of some sort of controlling cult and was just acting out their dictates.  This had to be real. This had to be from me, because I wanted to communicate these things to him.

“Well, OK,” he responded.  He paused, and said, “Are you coming over for dinner?”

“No, not tonight, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”

It was the beginning of a thaw in our relationship.  There was not an instant turnaround in the way we related to each other, but slowly, slowly, I began to view him as a distinct individual, and slowly, I could tell that he did the same with me.


Later, I told Dolores how my father reacted.

“That sounds just like your father,” she laughed.   We both found the exchange hillarious, and we could not stop laughing about it. 

We went to dinner that night and we continued to talk about my father’s suspicious nature, and we laughed like children.  It felt very good to laugh with Dolores.  It was a light time, and somehow, laughing together made us closer.  It also shifted the focus from problems in our relationship to my father’s character, and in that moment, it was a good thing.