Thus far in my “The Truth” series, we have learned about two holidays created by a mix of Christianity and Paganism. Today, we learn a third: Halloween.
Part 1: The Early Days
Two thousand years ago, Ancient Celts celebrated their new year on November 1st. It marked the end of harvesting and the beginning of cold winters, illness and death.
They believed the eve of their new year (October 31st) gave ghosts passage to the living world, allowing them to play tricks and damage crops.
Druids (Celtic priests thought to have enhanced divination abilities at this time) commemorated the occasion with the festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end.” It was a big crop-burning, animal-sacrificing party.
“Sound like fun!”
A giant bonfire was lit to encourage the sun’s presence. People danced, put on masks and wore animal carcass costumes to prevent evil spirits from possessing them. Good spirits, however, were free to enter open homes and join hearth fires.
Surely, the deities were pleased. The Romans, not so much.
Part 2: A Change In Command
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire owned nearly all Celtic land. In the 400 years that followed, they blended Samhain with their own festivals: Feralia (to celebrate the deceased spirits) and a day to honor Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruit and trees). The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which probably explains today’s tradition of bobbing for apples.
“Let’s all dunk our faces into a mixture of fruit, water and a stranger’s saliva! Yay!”
Except germs weren’t linked with disease until the 1850’s, when Louis Pasteur looked at sour beer under a microscope. And despite knowing that now, we still do it. So, you can’t blame the Romans for their unsanitary game. Also, this has nothing to do with Halloween.
Bobbing for apples, like the druids’ divination, was an ancient match-making tactic. The apple’s seeds were a manifestation of the Pentagram. I guess the Romans believed there was a direct correlation between that and love. The first person to bite into the red fruit would be the next one to marry.
“I got an apple! Let’s have babies! I’m only fourteen!”
In 18th-century Ireland, matchmaking cooks buried wedding rings into mashed potatoes. In Scotland, people attempted to decipher their lover’s initials using tossed apple peels, read fortunes from an egg yolk, and test their relationship’s strength by throwing hazelnuts into a fire.
“Move over eHarmony! I’m stocking up on prophetic food. Given this world’s divorce rates, I’ll try anything!”
However, things changed in 609 A.D. when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to all Christian martyrs. Pope Gregory III later included saints in that honor and moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st. It was called All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before (Samhain) became All-hallows Eve. Eventually, it was shortened to Halloween.
Part 3: The Continued Evolution of Traditions
About the time Mr. Louis Pasteur graduated from college (still completely irrelevant), millions of Irish immigrants were fleeing the Great Potato Famine. They came to the United States, popularized Halloween and brought more traditions!
For example, the Jack-O-Lantern represents the spirit of a lazy drunkard (named Jack) who kept the devil from taking his soul. He wanders the Earth for a place to rest, using a hot coal inside a turnip as his guiding light. Irish children did the same on Halloween, until they came to the U.S. and realized pumpkins were better.
Another famous tradition, trick-or-treating, resembles the late medieval practice of “souling,” when poor folk went door to door to receive food (on the night of Hallowmas, November 1st) in return for prayers for the dead (on All Souls Day, November 2nd).
However, some people think trick-or-treating developed independently in North America. The earliest appearance of ritual Halloween begging was in 1911, when a Kingston, Ontario newspaper mentioned small children singing to shops and neighbors for the rewards of nuts and candies. A 1934 article of the Oregon Journal contains the first documented use of the term “trick or treat.”
“I prefer treat, but there’s also a lot of tricks, right?”
It’s true. Around this time, there were two new additions to Halloween: parades (good) and vandalism (bad).
In the early 1940’s, All-Hallows Eve Eve (That’s not a real name. I just made it up. It’s October 30th.) became known as Devil’s night. City youths engaged in criminal behavior like egging doors, toilet papering trees and leaving flaming bags of feces on Old Man Jenkin’s porch.
“You dirty, rotten kids! Why, I’m gonna ding-dong ditch you into next Tuesday!”
Haunted house attractions and hay rides also became popular.
“Hey, what about witches and vampires and Frankenstein and stuff?”
Naturally, there are varying superstitions and folklores from numerous cultures thrown into the Halloween cauldron. It’s a spooky concoction derived from every era!
Witches, historically a symbol of astute healing, became anti-Christian demons (with black cat transformation spells) around 1,000 A.D.
Zombie’s originated in Haiti, where West African slaves were sold to sugar plantations. Haitians believed voodoo magicians (Houngans) could revive the deceased and create soulless servants.
Vampires have roots in Greece, China, India, Arabia and Mesoamerica. Werewolves are from medieval Europe. Mummies are from everywhere. Ghosts have been around forever.
Basically, anything creepy ever (even Hollywood’s Frankenstein) was siphoned into the holiday.
Halloween started as a season-based festival that honored the dead and paired soul mates.
Later, Halloween transitioned into a similar Christian-based occasion, honoring deceased saints. Then somehow, as all holidays do once they enter the clutches of Modern America, it morphed into something that has nothing to do with anything.
Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday. In addition to money we also cherish obscenely gruesome costumes, scaring the crap out of people and getting drunk.
Well, mainly for young adults. For everyone else it’s family fun! Little kids tote adorable costumes, older kids are ecstatic to discover the limitless candy storage of a pillow case and adults are happy to share the joy they once had years ago.
I suppose, in that way, we harken back to the ancient meaning of Samhain and All-hallows Eve. When it’s family fun for the whole community, we haven’t forgotten the origin of Halloween.