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Spooky Secrets: A Brief History of Halloween

Posted: 10/26/11 03:52 PM ET

Night falls and a fierce knocking assails your quiet home. Mischievous laughter resounds outside. You open the front door and are confronted by Osama bin Laden, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama and a green witch. They rustle bags and yell "trick or treat." You hand them candy and send them on their way, to other houses decorated with spider webs, tombstones and glowing hollowed-out pumpkins. By morning, some of these dwellings (usually those with teenage inhabitants) will be decorated with shaving cream and eggs, their trees festooned with toilet paper. Meanwhile, at parties around town, adults dressed as vampires and French maids dance and drink into the wee hours. From whence did Halloween, this peculiar and supposedly all-American holiday, derive?

Halloween's roots lie in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which was celebrated in the British Isles on a full moon around November 1st. Samhain was the most important of the Celtic fire festivals, or holy days, because it was the start of the New Year. The harvest had ended, the last crops had been picked, and a chill was in the air. The dark half of the year was beginning. On the night of Samhain, the Celts believed that the souls of the dead were restless, on the move, and could cross over into the world of the living.

In his book The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween, Jean Markale describes Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") as an important festival that served to unite the tribe. To commemorate the New Year, fires all over the Celtic world were extinguished the night of Samhain, then relit from ceremonial blazes kindled by Druids, the religious leaders of the pre-Christian Celts. Animals were slaughtered and sacrificed to Celtic deities.

"In marking the onset of winter, Samhain was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural," adds Nicholas Rogers, a York University history professor, in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. "The festival was closely related with prophecy and story-telling." It was a time out of time, "charged with a peculiar preternatural energy."

The old ways began to change with foreign influence some two millennia ago. The Romans invaded England in the first century A.D., and their festival for Pomona (the goddess of fruits and trees) may have added light-hearted traditions such as apple bobbing to Samhain. Later, the Celts converted to Christianity, a process that began in England in the 4th century and in Ireland (with the arrival of St. Patrick) in the 5th century A.D. The Christian Church could not utterly abolish the Samhain celebration, but ultimately they co-opted it, intentionally or otherwise, with two alterations of the Catholic calendar.

First, Pope Gregory IV (827-844 A.D.) changed the date of a festival honoring Christian saints to November 1 and called it the Feast of All Saints. The celebration of All Saints' Day became known as All Hallow Mass or Hallowmas in England. The night of October 31 became All Hallows Eve.

Then, in 998, the French monastic order of Cluny initiated a mass for the souls of the Christian dead, later moved to the day after All Saints Day. The new feast day of All Souls held further resonance for Celts accustomed to Samhain, a time so linked to the spirits of the dead. By the end of the twelfth century, the festivals of All Saints and All Souls (together called Hallowtide in Great Britain) were well-established highlights of the Christian year. And Hallows Eve, which preceded them, had effectively supplanted Samhain, while retaining its aura of eerie mystery. The beliefs that spirits were on the loose and that communication was possible between this world and the underworld survived in All Hallows Eve, as did a few rituals of the Celtic festival, like fire rites and divination.

The church masses of Hallowtide served as insurance against hauntings. As night fell and All Souls' Day arrived, "bells were rung for the souls in purgatory," writes Rogers. Across Catholic Europe, "food was laid out for the dead, whose souls were expected to return to their former abodes on All Souls' Day," a practice we see today in Mexico's Day of the Dead.

In England and elsewhere, it was a custom for the rich to give out food in return for prayers, a practice called "souling." "Soul cakes" (square biscuits with currants) were baked and given to relatives, poor neighbors or beggars on All Souls' Day. In return, the recipients promised to pray for the dead relatives of the donors. While "soulers" went door to door during Hallowtide, less solemn revelers also took to the streets.

Costumed folk began a "season of misrule" full of "disguisings, masks and mummeries." They sang, danced, drank, rode hobbyhorses, cross-dressed and impersonated officials, inverting the established order. Hallowtide had a little of the atmosphere of Carnival or Mardi Gras. Celebrants demanded food, ale, and coins from their neighbors and mocked those who wouldn't comply. The use of masks on Hallows Eve may have started with these merrymakers; and mummers and soulers asking for donations may have been a precedent for trick-or-treating.

Hallowmas fell out of favor in England during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and All Souls' Day was eliminated from the calendar. Yet All Hallows Eve continued as a time of supernatural intensity and became popularly known as Halloween in the 18th Century. In Ireland and Scotland, "Halloween was largely untouched by the Protestant Reformation," writes Rogers. "In the Scottish highlands, hallow fires blazed from cairns and hilltops. In some areas, there were torchlight processions around the fields to ensure their fertility or to ward off evil spirits and witches... many of these customs recalled the fire rituals of Samhain that were to be found in the ancient Celtic sagas."

Mummery and begging for treats on Halloween continued. In Scottish villages "it was not the deceased themselves who returned but young people who personified the spirits of the dead by hiding their faces under masks and wearing long white robes or grotesque costumes made from straw... they went in search of treats, treats that, of course, represented the offerings made to the deceased," writes Markale, author of The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. He adds that some carried hollowed-out turnips with a candle inside, representing a wandering spirit. These were called "jack 'o' lanterns" after an Irish legend about Jack, a man unwelcome in both heaven or hell, who was doomed to wander the earth eternally.

Halloween was associated with divinatory rituals, omens that foretold marriages or deaths, and premonitory dreams. Families and young woman enjoyed fortunetelling games in the parlor. Meanwhile, outside in the dark night, high-spirited boys were on the loose. Many of the pranks were "threshold tricks," wherein "doors were nailed shut, windows broken, gates taken off hinges and fences de-picketed," according to Mark Alice Durant in Dressed for Thrills. The pranksters understood that Halloween "was a night of a different order," adds Durant.

In North America, Halloween began to arrive in force in the 1840s. Rural immigrants from Ireland flooded into America and Canada because of the Great Potato Famine and brought Halloween customs from their homeland. A steady stream of Scots also carried Celtic traditions to the New World. The restless energy of the "mischief night" found expression in new surroundings: rowdy boys knocked down fences, tipped over outhouses, and wreaked other havoc. And families upgraded a harmless custom, thanks to the new land's plant life, making jack 'o' lanterns out of pumpkins, easily carved into large, grinning demonic faces.

By the late 1800s in North America, Halloween had developed into a family festival full of parties, seasonal foods (pumpkins, maize and apples) and costumes. Ghost stories were told, contests were held, and games were played. Masks for Halloween were on sale by the late 19th century. Retailers advertised candies and nuts for the night. Black cats and bats became Halloween motifs, apparently because of the influence of Edgar Allen Poe and gothic writers.

Halloween lost its religious overtones and changed into a secular, community-oriented celebration. It was no longer regarded as primarily an Irish or Scottish festival, and became a fixture in the North American calendar. Such acceptance did not diminish the pranks committed by young males that night, who now saw Halloween as their best opportunity to let loose. By the 1920s, there was public concern about how wild the night was getting. Mischief often veered into vandalism. Towns and clubs began to organize "safe" Halloween events -- carnivals, dances and street fairs -- to keep youngsters occupied.

The Halloween decorations of the time were similar to those of today: "Black cats, bats, Jack 'o' Lanterns, ghosts and witches predominate. Autumn leaves, cornstalks, fruits and vegetables carry the idea of a harvest celebration. Orange and black crepe paper are indispensable in decorating," observes an instructional booklet from Boston. Costumes were typically homemade, often from sacks, old clothes, soot and shoe polish. Commercial costume companies began to sell outfits based on celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Mickey Mouse and Dick Tracy.

While the practice of begging for, or demanding, food on Hallows Eve was centuries old, the words "trick or treat" apparently came into use in the 1930s. The earliest known appearance of the phrase in print was in an American Home article written by Doris Hudson Moss in 1939, according to author David Skal (Death Makes a Holiday) and others. Rogers writes, "Trick-or-treating radically altered the dynamics of festive license without eliminating its masking or playful features." The holiday became a boon for food manufacturers and retailers.

During the 1960s and '70s, Halloween became a thoroughly secular, consumer-oriented event. The booming plastics industry made it possible to cheaply sell realistic masks, noses, fangs and props. Middle-class parents bought full Halloween getups at mass-market stores for the family. For children, the main point of Halloween became to dress up and collect as much tasty candy as possible. There wasn't much sense of actually dealing out nasty "tricks" to people who didn't offer sufficient goodies, but many boys harassed friends, neighbors and random victims with armaments like eggs, toilet paper and shaving cream.

Today's Halloween has become popular in many places around the world. In America, suburban homes have bigger and spookier lawn displays each year. Office cubicles are festooned with orange and black crepe paper and bowls of candy. Hundreds of thousands show up at work in full Halloween garb. Costume parties for adults are commonplace. "Haunted houses" are popular seasonal attractions. The merchandising for the holiday is enormous, second only to that of Christmas. Halloween is big business, generating billons of dollars in sales; Hallows Eve has been possessed by Hollywood and Walmart.

The Halloween of this century has pretty much lost its uncanny power, unless one is four years old and terrified of an uncle dressed as Count Dracula. There aren't many Americans now who believe that spirits are on the loose the night of October 31. Although death is the central theme of Halloween, celebrants deal with the grim reaper only on a playful level. Yet perhaps this somehow helps children, and us, cope with the most fearful realities of life.

For adults, it may be that Halloween is evolving into a masquerade event like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in other countries. These are "inversion rituals," in which ordinary people can break the rules, flout convention, and mock authority for a few days, until the normal social order reasserts itself. Halloween no longer retains the sense of awe and wonder associated with Hallows Eve and Samhain in the past, yet it remains an intriguing, still-evolving ritual that fuses a wealth of folk beliefs and cultural traditions.

*Those who wish to know more can read my expanded essay The Origins of Halloween: A Brief History of Samhain, All Hallows Eve and Our Current Spooky Celebration, available on Kindle.

 
 
 

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