Those of you who have read my post “Lucia, Yule Goats, and other interesting occurrences” know that I find the origins of our holiday celebrations fascinating. Although it was never traditionally celebrated in my native country of Sweden, Halloween has become my absolute favorite since moving to the US.
Halloween is one of the oldest known holidays in the world and harks back to the dawn of our civilization. Thousands of years ago, the Irish Celts celebrated Samhain (pronounced Sow-in). The word literally means “end of summer” and was celebrated at the end of October. This was their New Years celebrations and marked a number of frightening changes in the natural environment surrounding them. As temperatures dropped and their days were getting shorter, they watched the trees shed their leaves, the birds fly south and the wild animals go into hibernation. They were facing the dark and dreary fact that the frigid cold of the months to come often brought death, famine and disease. Like so many other cultures, they relied on their priests to help them predict their fate during the year to come.
During Samhain, the boundary separating the land of the living and the land of the dead was thought to disintegrate and become especially thin. Spirits of the dead were said to break through this perceived “veil” and roam the Earth among those still living. In preparing for the Samhain celebration, the Celtic priests – the druids – built enormous, sacred bonfires – or “bone fires” as they used to be called. Both crops and animals were burned as sacrificial offerings to the Celtic deities. A Roman account I saw on exhibit at the London Dungeon in the mid-80‘s, delivered a chilling report that humans too were offered to appease the higher powers. As the fire roared, the druids would interpret and convey the message of the roaming ghosts and spirits, thus giving people hope for the future, and instilling a sense of direction for the new year.
Before leaving their homes to attend the festivities, the Celts extinguished the fires burning in their hearths. As a measure of precaution, they would also disguise themselves in animal heads and skins to avoid being recognized by any potentially ill-meaning, mischievous, roaming spirits. This is, of course, the root of our tradition of dressing up during what we now call Halloween. Just in case, food and drink was left on the doorstep to appease any destructive ghosts and spiritual passersby. To the bonfire, they would also bring along a hollowed out rutabaga (a kind of large, beet-like vegetable) or a large potato. After the new year’s prophecies had been made and the bonfire had burned down, each family would fill their rutabaga with new, fresh, glowing coals, with which they would return home to start the new year’s fire. The new fire would burn uninterrupted for the entire year, until it was time to extinguish it for the next Samhain. It was deemed important to maintain the continuity of the sacred flame, as it were said to guard and protect the home from ill and misfortune.
By A.D. 43, the Romans had invaded and conquered most of Ireland and the British Isles. It is much thanks to Roman accounts that we know as much as we do about the ancient traditions of the Celts. Like the Celts, the Romans saw the changing seasons as a sign to remember their own dead. They called their festival Feralia. Around the same time of year, they also paid tribute to Pomona. She was the Roman goddess of fruit and trees and was worshipped during harvest. Pomona herself was symbolized by an apple. She lives on in the French word for “apple” which is “pomme”. Over the four hundred years the Romans ruled the Celts, the Roman harvest traditions melded with the Celtic New Year rituals. To this day, the apple survives in our own Halloween celebrations in games like “bobbing for apples” and “snap-apple”, etc.
By the early 600’s, Christian Catholicism had all but taken over the formerly Celtic/Roman territory. On May 13th, 609 C.E., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Panteon in Rome to the Virgin Mary, and claimed it a day to commemorate all saints and martyrs. In the ever continuing attempts of Christian officials to absorb all preceding traditions into the fashionable folds of contemporary thought, Pope Gregory III later changed the date to November 1st. All Saints Day, as it became known, was in English translated to All-hallowmas. The preceding day – in Celtic lands traditionally called Samhain, became All Hallows Eve – eventually Hallowe’en. A couple of hundred years later later, another pope designated November 2nd to be All Souls’ Day. Taken together, the three days covered both saints and mortals, and effectively turned a pagan event into a church sanctioned Christian holiday. The celebrations remained essentially the same with bonfires, parades and the wearing of disguises. Only now, people expanded their dress-up repertoire to include saints, angels and devils instead of just animal heads and skins. Another novelty introduced by the Christians was the practice of going from house to house chanting, and offering to pray for their dead, in exchange for so called “soul cakes”. As one source describes it:
“Soul cakes and souling customs vary from county to county, but souling practices always flourished best along the Welsh border. Even there, the custom is rapidly dying out. In hamlets of Shropshire and Cheshire, in parts of the Midlands, and Lancashire one sometimes hears the soulers chanting old rhymes such as:
Soul! Soul! for an apple or two! If you have no apples, pears will do. If you have no pears, money will do. If you have no money, God bless you!”
This Middle Age “souling” custom was the earliest beginnings of our “Trick or Treat” and replaced the earlier practice of leaving food and wine for the roaming spirits. The festivities were not complete without pranks and a number of wholesome games – more often than not including attempts to foresee the future. Of particular interest were the participants’ romantic prospects. The tools used in making these important predictions included rings, nuts, bobbing for apples, apple parings, egg yolks, etc.
European Immigrants brought their varied Halloween customs with them to the New World, particularly to the southern colonies. (The earliest immigrants of northern New England were primarily Puritan Protestants, and for obvious reasons did not adhere much to the Catholic traditions.) The imported customs meshed with Native American traditions and native American plants – we gained pumpkins and corn – thus a distinct American version of Halloween evolved. The earliest celebrations were referred to as “play parties” and were public events that included harvest celebrations, fortune telling, stories of the dead, dancing and singing. In Colonial times the gatherings also featured ghost stories and mischief-making. The Irish potato famine of 1846 flooded the United States with Irish immigrants. They brought along their dress-up traditions and the begging for soul cakes, and helped spread the holiday’s popularity throughout the country. Halloween as we know it, was emerging.
By the turn of the century, Halloween had lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones as community leaders and newspapers urged parents to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of the Halloween celebrations. By the 1930’s it had become a secular, community centered event, celebrated in schools and community centers, with parades and parties being the main entertainment. At that point, despite community efforts to the contrary, Halloween celebrations began to be plagued by vandalism. By the 1950‘s, civic leaders and schools had successfully managed to curb the vandalism, and turned the festivities into a holiday celebrated mainly by children and youngsters, most often in their homes. The formerly community-wide event had become privatized and domesticated. Now, the only web that ties the festivities together as neighborhood celebrations is the age-old practice of Trick or Treat (formerly known as”soul-caking” or “going a-souling). The major baby-boom of the 1950‘s naturally helped solidify this new format, and it is preserved pretty much unaltered to this day. Currently, we as a nation spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it our second largest commercial holiday.
Versions of Halloween is found in countries throughout the world – Spain, Mexico, and Latin America celebrate La Dia de los Muertos. In Canada and Ireland it is celebrated the same way as in the USA. On November 5, the Brits celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires and fireworks. Although very similar in many ways and very close in time, this holiday has nothing to do with Halloween. It stems from a post -Reformation event when a member of a dissenting Catholic Group – Guy Fawkes – tried to blow up the Parliament in an attempt to remove the Protestant King James. The protestant English celebrated his capture and subsequent execution by lighting bonfires, and burning effigies of the Pope. Celebrators also carry the same effigies down the streets, begging for “a penny for the guy”, which is probably the closest they come to Trick-or-Treat.
Over the centuries leading up to the Middle Ages, the formerly matriarchal societies which had traditionally worshipped fertility goddesses like Isis, Diana, Freja, Aphrodite et. c., had gradually given way to a more patriarchal society as Christianity continued to spread. The ceremonial worshippers of these goddesses were known as “wise women”. In this time of pre-modern medicine, these women were the midwives and healers, and often had extensive botanical knowledge. For centuries, the two schools of thought co-existed relatively peacefully. But, by the time the Black Death (the bubonic plague) peaked in the mid-14th century, the reasoning that those who could heal would also be able to inflict hurt, gained easy acceptance. In a world where one in three died from the ravages of this pandemic, the climate was rife for a scapegoat. The “wise women” suddenly found themselves accused of selling their souls to the devil, practicing magic, engaging in cannibalistic infanticide and promiscuous sex. A witch hunt that was not to end until the end of the 18th century, had begun.
In 1486 – about four decades after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press – Malleus Maleficarum was written by a couple of Domenicans – Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. It was a treatise on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches. With the help of the printing press, it spread like wild fire across the lands and, second only to the Bible, was the best selling book in the world. It became the primary tool for the Inquisition in its insatiable quest for heretic blood. The “truth” and names of co-conspirators were successfully extracted via torture. Some of the most infamous torture instruments known to date, hail from those days. As you can imagine, the damage was immense! Scholars estimate that between 300 – 600 000 people (mostly women and children, but also some men) lost their lives in the madness that ensued. Some villages – notably Wurtzburg, Germany – were completely devoid of women after their civic leaders had their way! An excellent documentary I saw on the subject (Ancient mysteries: Witches) attributes those numbers to the fact that victims will indeed give you anything you ask – including names – while under torture. Thus, the number of suspects increased exponentially as the grim interrogations continued…
It really was not until the early 20th century that Halloween celebrators deemed it safe to dress up as a witches and her friendly, nocturnal co-horts, owls, bats, and black cats. Today the witch with the cone-shaped hat is arguably one of the most typical of Halloween costumes. Funny – what made people shriek in horror just a few centuries ago, has now been comfortably eased into pop culture. I guess that means this ancient holiday is still evolving…
UPDATE: All photos except the one of my kids in costume, borrowed from Google images/Wikipedia.