The common story goes that Halloween originated in the misty days of pre-Roman Ireland, with the year-ending festival of Samhain. That final day of the Celtic calendar was a "thin time" when spirits walked the Earth and costumed junior Druids traveled from home to home with lighted turnips, begging for food. The festival was appropriated by the Catholic Church as All Hallow's Eve as a fair or foul attempt to convert the Pagans, and evolved over time into the holiday we know today.
If only there was any historical evidence for this story!
Very little is actually known about Druids, their festivals, and their practices, on account of their being a pre-literate culture. Most of what we do know comes from the Romans, an imperial force who cannot be relied upon to have a full, nuanced appreciation for the cultures they attempted to conquer. It was the Romans who gave the impression that mass human sacrifice in Wicker Men was a common Druidic practice. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Celts took to Christianity and took to it hard. So it can safely be said that there was a festival surrounding Samhain, a term which literally means "summer's end" but was not necessarily the end of the Celtic year. It may have had something to do with honouring the dead, but we don't know for sure, and that practice may have been Christianized as All Saints Day, a lesser festival honouring all the saints and martyrs who did not have their own designated feast days (the preceding evening being All Hallows Eve), and followed by All Souls Day remembering all the Christian dead. Yet the original practice of All Saints Day varied from country to country - November 1 in England and Germany, April 20 in Ireland, May 13 in most of the Christian world - and the November 1 date was only fixed in the 12th century, well after the Christianization of the Celts. Scholars can't actually say what transpired during Samhain festivals, on account of there being no record whatsoever. It seems that processions for the faithful dead were actually a Christian invention, as well as the door-to-door begging for food. All Saints was only one such opportunity for such activity: processions and door-to-door hunger appeals also surfaced on the feast days of St. Andrew, St. Nicholas, St. Thomas, and even later on Guy Fawkes Day. Like other holy days, it became an opportunity for ribald fools festivals, danse macabre, and pranking. In Europe and the British Isles, Halloween is only a minor practice, oftentimes unwelcome, and one that has mostly been imported from the United States.
That being the case, where did the idea that Halloween was an ancient, pre-Christian Druidic practice come from? The most likely answer is that it came from the same people who invented the modern holiday of Halloween itself: the Victorians!
Even more specifically, the association of Halloween with Samhain, the Druids, and pre-Christian Paganism seems to originate with 19th century comparative mythologists like John Rhys and James Frazer. In The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, published in 1890, Frazer makes a number of unsubstantiated claims about the ancient Celts and their ways by variously reinterpreting or misinterpreting Christian practices. In this case, all of the Mediaeval Christian traditions that had accrued around All Saints Day were ascribed to the Celts. Indeed, Frazer seemed particularly zealous, as many comparative mythologists have since, to divest Christianity of any originality whatsoever in an attempt to explain away the religion in a way that ends up explaining nothing about it. It's hard to imagine a religion catching on that had absolutely nothing original to offer.
The practice of All Saints Day was essentially ended in Protestant lands, with the exception of a modified form in Anglican and Lutheran territories (it was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, exactly because of the date's connection with the faithful deceased). The head of the Church of England herself maintained a Halloween bonfire. The following description of a party at Balmoral Castle comes from 1874:
Her Majesty and the Princess Beatrice, each bearing a large torch, drove out in an open phaeton. A procession, formed of the tenants and servants on the estates, followed. All carried high torches, lighted. They walked through the grounds and round the castle, and the scene as the procession moved onwards was very weird and striking... When the flames were at their brightest a figure dressed as a hobgoblin appeared on the scene, drawing a car surrounded by a number of fairies carrying long spears, the car containing the effigy of a witch. A circle having been formed by the torchbearers, the presiding elf tossed the figure of the witch into the fire, where it was speedily consumed. This act of cremation over, reels began, and were danced with great vigour to the stirring strains of Willie Ross, her Majesty’s piper.
The same news report states that the practice of Halloween "is fast falling into neglect in many districts in Scotland." It was slow to catch on in the United States as well, it having been initially colonized by the Puritans, who had also outlawed Christmas. Prior to the 1840's, mentions of Halloween in the literature of the United States were uncommon. Even that most seminal of all American Halloween stories - Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) - takes place during a generic autumnal harvest festival, or what Irving describes as a "quilting frolic."
|The Quilting Frolic by John Lewis Krimmel (1813)|
Irving does, however, supply the reader with a description of an evolving American tradition. After the feasting and dancing, the attendees of Baltus Van Tassel's frolic gather for tales of old times... of heroes, and of ghosts...
When the dance was at an end, Ichabod was attracted to a knot of the sager folks, who, with old Van Tassel, sat smoking at one end of the piazza, gossiping over former times, and drawing out long stories about the war.
This neighborhood, at the time of which I am speaking, was one of those highly-favored places which abound with chronicle and great men. The British and American line had run near it during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and infested with refugees, cow-boys, and all kinds of border chivalry. Just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each story-teller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and, in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit.
There was the story of Doffue Martling, a large blue-bearded Dutchman, who had nearly taken a British frigate with an old iron nine-pounder from a mud breastwork, only that his gun burst at the sixth discharge. And there was an old gentleman who shall be nameless, being too rich a mynheer to be lightly mentioned, who, in the battle of White-plains, being an excellent master of defence, parried a musket ball with a small sword, insomuch that he absolutely felt it whiz round the blade, and glance off at the hilt: in proof of which, he was ready at any time to show the sword, with the hilt a little bent. There were several more that had been equally great in the field, not one of whom but was persuaded that he had a considerable hand in bringing the war to a happy termination.
But all these were nothing to the tales of ghosts and apparitions that succeeded. The neighborhood is rich in legendary treasures of the kind. Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered long-settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the populations of most of our country places. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for, they have scarcely had time to finish their first nap, and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have travelled away from the neighborhood; so that when they turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long-established Dutch communities.
The immediate cause, however, of the prevalence of supernatural stories in these parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land. Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailing heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the church-yard.
The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. This was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman; and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.
This story was immediately matched by a thrice marvellous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey. He affirmed that, on returning one night from the neighboring village of Sing Sing, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it too, for Dare-devil beat the goblin horse all hollow, but, just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.
All these tales, told in that drowsy undertone with which men talk in the dark, the countenances of the listeners only now and then receiving a casual gleam from the glare of a pipe, sank deep in the mind of Ichabod. He repaid them in kind with large extracts from his invaluable author, Cotton Mather, and added many marvellous events that had taken place in his native State of Connecticut, and fearful sights which he had seen in his nightly walks about Sleepy Hollow.
|The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor (1858)|
The debt of modern Halloween celebrations to old time harvest festivals is seen most clearly in the Jack O' Lantern. Various accounts of dubious authenticity and historicity try to connect the Jack O' Lantern to Irish folktales about immortal men with hot coals kept in hollowed out turnips, or such turnips being used to ward off evil spirits during Samhain. The essential fact is missing in most accounts that the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. Pumpkin carving had been practiced in the United States since the early 19th century as part of the harvest festival. Mention of it appears in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1837 anthology of short stories Twice-Told Tales, in which a man scoffs at the idea of hiding a lustrous jewel ("The Great Carbuncle") under a cloak, saying "Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o'-lantern!" Some scholars have even argued that it was the end of the harvest that ultimately decided the placement of All Saints Day on November 1st, when large numbers of pilgrims could be more easily fed. Harvest imagery - pumpkins, scarecrows, bushels of wheat and corn - are still common Halloween images.
|Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise (1833).|
"Snap Apple" is an alternative name for apple bobbing, and "Snap Apple Night" is an extinct synonym
for Halloween. The painting was inspired by an Irish Halloween party attended by the artist.
The tide turned in favour of Halloween with the Great Famine in Ireland and subsequent mass immigration of Irish people into the United States in the 1840's. The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, was caused by a disease called the "potato blight" that affected Ireland's staple crop. As a consequence, a million people died and a further million left the Emerald Isles. When the Irish diaspora arrived in America, their traditions came with them, including the Catholic festival of All Saints and All Souls. Halloween evolved from these freshly laid seeds as a distinctly Americanized holiday, just as St. Patrick's Day has. In Mexico, colonized by the Catholic Spanish, All Saints and All Souls likewise evolved into Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Along with the Irish came the practices of mumming, guising, and souling. Mummers plays were short melodramas performed by roving, costumed actors on special festival days in the British Isles. Dating back to at least the 13th century, these plays were typically performed on Easter, Christmas, and Plough Monday, the Monday after the start of the Christian holy day of Epiphany (January 6) and the beginning of work after the 12 days of lenient festivities through Christmas. All Saints was also an opportunity for mummers to ply their trade, which typically ended with payment in food or coin. Guising was the lay-person's version, usually performed by children in costume who went door-to-door reciting verses, poems, and songs for apples, nuts, and coins. Like mumming, guising was practiced during a number of different festivals, and the first record of it in association with Halloween in the UK dates to 1895.
Guising was connected with the Mediaeval practice of souling, in which the poorer members of British society roved the streets during the All Saints season, singing and offering prayers on behalf of the wealthier members in exchange for "soul cakes." The cakes were usually filled with the sort of luxuries that the poor could not themselves afford: nutmeg and cinnamon, allspice, raisins and currants, and other such tasty morsels. An 1891 transcription of a souling song goes as follows:
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!Please good Missis, a soul-cake!An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,Any good thing to make us all merry.One for Peter, two for PaulThree for Him who made us all.God bless the master of this house,The misteress also,And all the little childrenThat round your table grow.Likewise young men and maidens,Your cattle and your store ;And all that dwells within your gates,We wish you ten times more. RDown into the cellar,And see what you can find,If the barrels are not empty,We hope you will prove kind.We hope you will prove kind,With your apples and strong beer,And we'll come no more a-soulingTill this time next year. RThe lanes are very dirty,My shoes are very thin,I've got a little pocketTo put a penny in.If you haven't got a penny,A ha'penny will do ;If you haven't get a ha'penny,It's God bless you R
|A depiction of souling from St. Nicholas Magazine, 1882.|
Though repeating the common myths of Halloween's Pagan origins, Ruth Edna Kelley's 1919 The Book of Hallowe'en does provide valuable insight into American Halloween celebrations at the turn of the previous century. These customs were an evolving collection of traditional, mostly Mediaeval, British celebrations and fortune-tellings, culminating in a bout of souling, particular to the melting pot of the United States and Dominion of Canada.
While the original customs of Hallowe'en are being forgotten more and more across the ocean, Americans have fostered them, and are making this an occasion something like what it must have been in its best days overseas. All Hallowe'en customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries. All superstitions, everyday
ones, and those pertaining to Christmas and New Year's, have special value on Hallowe'en.
It is a night of ghostly and merry revelry. Mischievous spirits choose it for carrying off gates and other objects, and hiding them or putting them out of reach... Bags filled with flour sprinkle the passers-by. Door-bells are rung and mysterious raps sounded on doors, things thrown into halls, and knobs stolen. Such sports mean no more at Hallowe'en than the tricks played the night before the Fourth of July have to do with the Declaration of Independence. We see manifested on all such occasions the spirit of "Free-night"...
Hallowe'en parties are the real survival of
the ancient merrymakings. They are prepared for in secret. Guests are not to divulge the fact that they are invited. Often they come masked, as ghosts or witches.
The decorations make plain the two elements of the festival. For the centerpiece of the table there may be a hollowed pumpkin, filled with apples and nuts and other fruits of harvest, or a pumpkin-chariot drawn by field-mice. So it is clear that this is a harvest-party, like Pomona's feast. In the coach rides a witch, representing the other element, of magic and prophecy. Jack-o'-lanterns, with which the room is lighted, are hollowed pumpkins with candles inside. The candle-light shines through holes cut like features. So the lantern becomes a bogy, and is held up at a window to frighten those inside. Corn-stalks from the garden stand in clumps about the room. A frieze of witches on broomsticks, with cats, bats, and owls surmounts the fireplace, perhaps. A full moon shines over all, and a caldron on a tripod holds fortunes tied in nut-shells. The prevailing colors are
yellow and black: a deep yellow is the color of most ripe grain and fruit; black stands for black magic and demoniac influence. Ghosts and skulls and cross-bones, symbols of death, startle the beholder. Since Hallowe'en is a time for lovers to learn their fate, hearts and other sentimental tokens are used to good effect, as the Scotch lads of Burns's time wore love-knots.
Having marched to the dining-room to the time of a dirge, the guests find before them plain, hearty fare; doughnuts, gingerbread, cider, popcorn, apples, and nuts honored by time. The Hallowe'en cake has held the place of honor since the beginning here in America. A ring, key, thimble, penny, and button baked in it foretell respectively speedy marriage, a journey, spinsterhood, wealth, and bachelorhood...
The taste in Hallowe'en festivities now is to
study old traditions, and hold a Scotch party, using Burns's poem Hallowe'en as a guide; or to go a-souling as the English used. In short, no custom that was once honored at Hallowe'en is out of fashion now.
It took time for the traditions imported by the Irish to diffuse through American society, on account of the poor reputation of the Irish (rarely in history have Americans been unanimously enthusiastic about waves of mass immigration from unfamiliar cultures). The penchant for pranking and indulgence did the holiday no favours with the moral guardians of high society. The October 1872 issue of Godey's Lady Book magazine describes the holiday in less than complimentary terms: "In this country Halloween was for a time strictly observed, but of late years It has been forgotten by almost all, except the Juveniles. Amongst the old-style English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh residents, the games mentioned above are practiced to some extent, and the occasion is also made noticeable for the baking of the old-fashioned potato pudding. Amongst the American people but little other sport is indulged in than the drinking, by the country folk, of hard cider, and the masticating of indigestible 'crullers,' or 'doughnuts.' The gamlins make use of the festival to batter down panels, dislocate bell-wires, unhinge gates, destroy cabbage-patches, and raise a row generally." Popular acceptance of Halloween had to wait for another decade.
The first reference to pranking and souling by its more popular name comes a 1927 newspaper article from the town of Blackie, Alberta, Canada: "Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word 'trick or treat' to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing." The term migrated into the United States in the 1930's, by which time Trick-or-Treating became a cherished Halloween tradition.
Well, cherished by some. Whereas Halloween today is annually beleaguered with urban legends of razor-blade candy and drug dealers wasting perfectly good LSD on kids, in the past it was explicitly denounced as crude extortion. The following letter was written to the editor of the Washington Post in 1948: "I have lived in some 20 other towns and cities and I never saw nor heard of the begging practice until about 1936... The sooner it becomes obsolete here the better. I don't mind the tiny children who want to show off their costumes, but I resent the impudence of the older children." Despite the naysayers, Trick-or-Treating became popular enough for Walt Disney to produce an eponymous cartoon in 1952.
Costuming became more prevalent at the turn of the century onwards, and the development of that alongside Trick-or-Treating is contemporaneous with the development of the Horror genre in film. Horror literature has, of course, existed for some time, as have folk stories of ghosts and goblins. But the advent of cinema, and the classic films of Universal Studios in particular, gave a distinct visual vocabulary to horror that has endured to this day. Few children today have probably seen Dracula with Bela Lugosi or Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, yet they immediately recognize those particular incarnations as Halloween icons. Prior to this vocabulary forming, costumes were typically of storybook characters and popular figures.
|A coven of costume witches from the turn of the century.|
|Scarecrows and ghosts, maybe?|
Halloween is an excellent example of an emerging tradition. Its origins are multivarious - New World harvest festivals, Mediaeval religious festivals, imported traditions by Irish immigrants, and homegrown traditions of extorting candy with threats - and coalesced into a distinct holiday within the relatively recent past, yet legitimized by a false history stretching back to before the written word. Its festivities are largely impenetrable to most people taking part in them, and a great deal of misinformation is out there about them, but like Christmas before it, most of what we take for granted on October 31st was invented, more or less, by the Victorians.