Thursday, October 9, 2008
History of Halloween
I feel the need every year about this time to post something about the history of Halloween. Like most traditions and customs in the United States, people have forgotten the origins and meaning behind "our" annual observances.
The holiday has some roots in Celtic Ireland, with October 31st being the observance of Samhain, the Celtic New Year. It was also believed that on this day, the veil between the living and the dead was removed, and that spirits of the dead wandered the Earth bringing mischief to the living. It was customary for people to dress as "evil spirits" so that the ghosts of the dead would confuse them as one of their own, and leave them in peace. Also, they would hallow out and carve faces in turnips, and use these as lanterns to frighten off the spirits of the dead (pumpkins replacing turnips in the New World).
With the rise of Christianity in Ireland, Catholic customs and observances merged with existing practices. The Liturgical calendar of Church feast days and observances was re-arranged to include the feast of All Saints Day on November 1st, and the feast of All Souls (a time to pray for and remember the dead) to November 2nd.
The superstitions of evil spirits or mischievous ghosts still teased the imagination of early Christians, so these customs of jack-o-lanterns and dressing up on October 31st remained in tact. Because the night before a Holy Day included a Vigil Mass, October 31st was called All Hallows Eve (Hallows being an old English name for Saints), just as we have Christmas "Eve" in present day. Eventually, the name was shortened to "Hallow'een".
In England, in an attempt for Catholics to escape from the persecution of the crown, a members of an underground Catholic rebel group led by Guy Fawkes decided to blow up Parliament and put a Catholic back on the throne of England (known as the Gun Powder Plot). Guy Fawkes and his plan were discovered, and he was later sentenced to death. In November, to celebrate yet another Protestant victory over Catholics, English Protestants would bang on doors of Catholics demanding beer and cakes. Should the Catholic refuse to oblige, a prank or "trick" would be unleashed on the victim. In the New World, this custom of "trick or treating" was kept alive by Catholics as a way to remember the persecution they under went in their homeland.
In the United States (which I have been referring to as the "New World"), all these various traditions and customs blended as new immigrant groups began to settle here. The Irish custom of jack-o-lanters and dressing up (and also the French concept of the masquerade) merged with the Trick or Treating of Guy Fawkes day. The Catholic observance of All Saints and its remembrance of the dead on All Souls Day also merged into the modern catch-all holiday of Halloween.
The symbolism of ghosts, skulls and skeletons is significant because they are meant to remind us of our own mortality, and that life is transitory. This concept, as intensified by All Souls Day goes back to medieval times when people were obsessed with death and the need to prepare one's soul for Heaven. I find this aspect of the Halloween holiday to be exceptionally important and relevant in modern times since we now live in a society in which the here and now is all that matters. Our own comfort and material possessions are highest on our list, while we tend to forget the people and accomplishments that went before us. Halloween helps us to remember that all good things must end, and that "dust you are, and to dust you shall return". A sober reminder, and humbling thought.
Lastly, Halloween is a great time to look our fears in the face and laugh. Psychologically, it's good for use to face our fears once in a while.. especially in the controlled environment that Halloween presents us with. Dressing up as scary creatures or going to Haunted Houses for a good scream is a great way to at least temporally face our fears.
Sadly, Halloween is hotly contested by more radical or fundamental Christian groups who see it as an evil Pagan holiday. "They" tend to have very limited knowledge of the real practices of the actual Pagan holiday which Hallow'een replaced, which has no reference whatsoever to Satanic practices (Satan being a Judeo-Christian concept, not found in many Celtic or Pagan faiths). Furthermore, many Evangelical Christians do not see Catholics as fellow Christians, and turn their noses up at the remembrances of All Saints and All Souls Days. Sadly, Halloween is yet another example of the Puritanical resurgence of seeing more evil in the world than good.