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Saint Leo Historian Delights Morning Television Viewers with Halloween’s Ancient Roots

Villages held bonfires along with harvest festivals

Halloween is already a fun holiday time for millions of children and adults, but a Saint Leo University faculty member has been in the news making the season of jack o’ lanterns and spooks even more fascinating.

Padraig-Lawlor-with-turnip-Historian Pádraig Lawlor, PhD., appeared on Tampa and St. Petersburg’s Channel 10 (WTSP-TV) early-morning news program Brightside recently to speak with anchor Caitlin Lockerbie about the origin of modern Halloween traditions. When the historian and broadcaster met at a Pinellas County pumpkin patch, Lawlor explained that Halloween traces back to his native Ireland and a medieval harvest-season festival called Samhain, pronounced SAH-when. It was a time to prepare for the dark and cold months of the coming winter, for communities to hold bonfires, and for people to appease evil spirits and safeguard their homes with homemade lanterns set on their windowsills.

And here is the fact that takes people by surprise: the lanterns had to be carved from turnips, the round root vegetable. It is easy to imagine that pumpkins were used from the start, but the larger orange gourds were not found in Ireland then. Lawlor brought a fresh turnip along to the interview so that Lockerbie could appreciate the size difference: the turnip can be held in the palm of one hand.

“These were all the rage in Ireland,” Lawlor told her.

Pumpkins came into play much later after a famine at home sparked a massive Irish emigration to America’s New England and Midwest states, where the newcomers found pumpkins plentiful and adaptable to the intended use, Lawlor explained.

He then went on to explain the origins of trick or treating to the interviewer and television host.

photo-1-Some Saint Leo students at University Campus have been learning even more about medieval history, folklore, ancient religious practices, migration patterns, and gender roles in an elective course Lawlor has been teaching this semester on witchcraft in history. The entire interview with Lockerbie is hosted on the station’s website: https://www.wtsp.com/video/entertainment/television/brightside/beyond-the-headline/origin-of-halloween/67-76278ae5-f40f-4bd0-9ecf-acc138e03325  

Lawlor will apply some of the same techniques of investigating history through storytelling in a new elective to be offered during the Spring 2020 Semester. He will teach a new course about the European history that underlies the popular Game of Thrones series of novels by George R. R. Martin and recent television series.

Lawlor came to the United States to earn his doctorate in European history from Purdue University. He began his career as an academic in Ireland, where he earned a Master of Philosophy in early modern European history from Trinity College in Dublin. He also earned an Honors Diploma in Irish history, as well as his Bachelor of Arts in English and history, from the National University of Ireland.

Photos courtesy of WTSP-TV

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