Friday, October 28, 2016

Halloween Traditions Explained

Demonology Files: Halloween

We have a lot of weird-ass traditions for Halloween. Dressing up in costumes, collecting candy, butchering pumpkins...I, for one, wanted to know what's the story behind these traditions. So this installment of the Demonology Files is a history of Halloween.

The Spookiness (re: the Origins of Halloween Itself)

Halloween (a.k.a. All Hallow's Eve) was started by the Celts some 2,000 years ago. November 1st marked the important Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced "sah-win"). There's some debate as to what exactly Samhain celebrated and how big of a role death and ghosts played in it, whether or not they believed our world and the underworld's borders blurred, etc. But everyone agrees that the changing of the seasons played some part in the celebrations. Harvest would be at its end with winter just around the corner. The "time for one last blowout before we all freeze to death" mentality was in effect. 

When the Romans showed up in the 40s (C.E.), two of their traditions mashed up with Samhain. One was Feralia, traditionally celebrated in late October to commemorate the dead. (So if the dead weren't already a part of this time of year for the Celts, it sure was now.) The other Roman holiday was to celebrate Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol is the apple. As in apple-bobbing. 

Fast-forward to the 9th Century. Christianity's made its way across Europe. While many Celts practiced Christianity, there were still a lot of pagan rituals and customs the church wanted to weed out. Samhain was one of them. So they offered a replacement holiday of sorts: All Souls' Day, on November 2nd. This holiday got started in the 7th Century (by Pope Boniface IV) as the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day to commemorate Christian martyrs. It was then expanded to include saints as well as martyrs and was moved from May to November by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century. All Souls' Day was the next step, and officially became a Christian holiday to honor the dead in 1000 C.E. 

Of course, it didn't exactly work out the way the church had hoped. All Souls Day and Samhain were both celebrated in similar ways: big bonfires, parades, and costumes (more on that later). Not to mention they were only one day apart. So it was more of a mesh-up of traditions and beliefs than a replacement. 

All Saints Day was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from the word "Alholowmesse," the Middle English word for All Saints Day). The night before it, which was the traditional night of Samhain, was eventually called All-hallows Eve. After enough time, the two holidays combined completely, was moved to October 31st, and became known as Halloween.

Eventually Halloween made it across the Atlantic. It was celebrated only in Maryland and the southern colonies at first (too "pagan" for the Puritans in New England). Although there was still heavy emphasis on honoring the dead and offering prayers, slowly but surely it became more about communal gatherings and celebrating the harvest. By the 1920s, it had dropped all religious connotations and became focused on just having a good time. 

Costumes and Trick 'r Treating

You'd be hard-pressed not to find a holiday that doesn't involve dress-up and sweets in some way, shape or form. We dress up in costume and gorge on candy to celebrate Christmas and Easter, so the fact that we do it for Halloween isn't much of a surprise.

It's believed the Celts wore outfits of animal heads and pelts during the Samhain holiday. Other European cultures had "mumming" and "guising" rituals, where people would disguise themselves and go door-to-door asking for food on any day of the year. The disguises were usually made of straw, or were outfits for skits and plays the beggars would perform later. (Unlike today, even the most renowned actors were flat broke and not respected.)

And then of course there's the medieval practice of "souling." On All Saints Day (or rather, All-hallowmas, since we're talking medieval times), beggars would go door-to-door and offer prayers for the dead in exchange for food. 

America took up trick 'r treating as we know it sometime between 1920 and 1950, which makes sense when you think about the Great Depression and total war effort going on in the '30s and '40s: everyone was a beggar. There's also the baby boomers, who would've been sugar-hungry little munchkins by the time the '50s rolled around.


This one came from an Irish myth. 

A man named Stingy Jack had a bad habit of playing tricks. One time, he invited the Devil to have a drink with him, but of course didn't want to pay. So he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. (I don't know how the Devil would've been able to enjoy his drink like that, but whatever.) Instead of paying, Jack put the Devil-turned-coin in his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back. 

Alternatively, he convinced the Devil to climb a tree in order to pick a fruit. While the Devil was up there, Jack carved a cross into the tree's trunk, preventing him from climbing down. 

Eventually, whether in coin form or stuck in a tree, Jack did free the Devil on one condition: the Devil was not to claim Jack's soul once he died. 

Of course, just because Jack didn't have to worry about going to Hell, that didn't guarantee a spot in Heaven. When Jack did die, God said, "Nuh-uh," and banned him from Heaven. 

The Devil couldn't take him. He'd made a pinky-swear never to collect Jack's soul (and he didn't want him in Hell, anyway). So instead, the Devil cast Jack's spirit out into the world with nothing but an ember to light the dark nights. Jack put the ember in a carved-out turnip to make it easier to carry and has been roaming the earth ever since. 

The Irish called the ghost "Jack of the Lantern." And then, because they're Irish, shortened it to "Jack O'Lantern." 

The living don't want anything to do with Jack, either. Back in the day, the Irish and Scots made their own lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes and leaving them on their windows. Fast-forward a few centuries, and the colonists found that the American pumpkin was much better. And cooler. And tastier. We're awesome that way. :P


Thanks for reading! :)

No comments:

Post a Comment