Its the season when orange is so popular and leaves of many colors begin to fall upon our heads. This is in addition to cinematic psychopath, Michael Meyers, stalking Main Street, USA, with his long sharp knife in search of impudent teenagers to maim and slaughter. Too soon, when Santa is nigh, thoughts of sugar plums will surely invade. But for now its time for ghosts, goblins, gourds, black cats and homicidal maniacs. How did all of that happen anyway?
Halloween, the contracted corruption of the words, All Hallows Eve, actually had its origins within the realm of the Catholic Church. November 1, "All Hallows Day" (or "All Saints Day") marks a day of observance to honor all saints. The day was also known as Hallowmas, which came from the Old English word "hallow", meaning to sanctify. It is preceded by a vigil on the evening of October 31. Despite this, Halloween is also a rite with pagan roots, dating as far back as 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
The Celts, who populated the areas that are now Ireland, The United Kingdom and Northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time of year often associated with death. The Celts theorized that on the night before the New Year (October 31), the boundaries between the worlds of the living and that of the dead became blurred. Samhain was celebrated on this night, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. During the long cold winter, these spirits guided the Druids (Celtic priests) in their predictions about the future. To commemorate the event, Druids built huge bonfires, where the people, dressed in costumes of animal heads and skins, gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the deities.
The Roman conquerors of Celtic territory decided to make their own history (as conquerors are prone to do). In the course of their four hundred-year rule, two Roman festivals were combined with that of the traditional Celtic Samhain. Feralia was a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. The apple is the symbol of Pomona and this may explain the odd tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween. (This does not explain, however, the origins of the nickname,"Bob", which must come from somewhere.)
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and it is believed that with the designation of All Saints Day on November the first, the church was trying to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday. By AD 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls Day, which was a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and costumes. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints, All Saints Day and All Souls Day became Hallowmas.
The tradition of trick or treating especially in America probably dates back to the early All Souls Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the familys dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits (who knew their way home and could drink because they didnt have to drive). "Going a-souling" was eventually taken up by English children who would visit the houses in their neighborhoods and be given ale, food and money.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. It stems from the fear of running into ghosts on that fateful night when spirits return to the earthly world. To avoid being recognized or mistaken for another spirit, (especially if one owed them money in a former life), people wore masks. (It is not known if this belief later influenced the Lone Ranger, the late glittering soul of Liberace or Little Richard. of rock and roll royalty.) To appease the ghosts, people would place bowls of food outside their homes and pray that they wouldnt enter.
Halloween came to America with European immigrants. In Colonial America, it was hardly commemorated due to the strict religious codes of the early Puritans. It was celebrated more commonly in Maryland and the southern colonies, where festivities featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. European ethnic diversity blended with native American folklore to evolve into a uniquely American version of Halloween. "Play parties" celebrated the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each others fortunes, dance and sing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet prominent elsewhere in the country.
With the advent of Irish immigration after the Potato Famine of 1848, there came a national popularization of Halloween. Irish traditions called for dressing up in costumes and going from house to neighboring house asking for food and money. This practice became todays trick or treat tradition and, perhaps, the origins of masked muggings in depressed areas as well. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.
The Jack-o-lantern custom most probably comes from Irish folklore as well. Supposedly, a man named Jack, who was known to be a drunkard and a trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. He then carved the image of a cross in the trees trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack promised to let the devil down from the tree if he would promise in turn to never to trick him again. But after Jack died, he was denied access to both heaven and hell, and instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. But when the Irish came to America and found pumpkins to be much more plentiful than turnips, they adopted it as their symbol of Jack and his tale.
Halloween lost most of its religious and superstitious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century due to a movement in America to mold Halloween into a community holiday, more concerned with neighborly get-togethers than ghosts and pranks. Parties with games and festive costumes became the most common way to commemorate the day and parents were encouraged to remove anything frightening or grotesque out of Halloween festivities.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries old practice of trick-or-treating was revived, and by the 1950s, Halloween had evolved into a holiday for the young. It was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to participate in Halloween and in theory, families could prevent tricks from being played upon them by providing small treats to the children. Today, Americans spend $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the countrys second largest commercial holiday.
So when the children come-a-calling, you better-a-giving. Theres no telling what the tricks will be if the treats dont appease their mischievous spirits. I have never heard of that happening, as everyone seems most generous of candy corn and chocolate kisses and the like on October the 31st. For diabetics like me, candy presents it own problems, but for Michael Meyers it doesnt matter what the treat is. Its Halloween that lures him onward. The rest of the year his knife chops healthy salads and he even mows the lawns and shovels snow for all the neighborly folks living on Main Street, USA.
Did you know . . .