* (This story was published when I was on the staff of The Rearguard Newspaper, from 2005 – 2006. The editor at the time had a very specific vision for the paper, and had given us different “titles” & “sections” of the paper to manage and fill. I was the Arts & Culture Editor / KPSU Guru, and my section was “The Cultureostomy Bag.” The photo included next to my stories was this one from around The Rearguard office, sporting my very favorite Last of The Juanitas shirt, which I still have.
The “Halloween History Lesson” story appeared in the October 2005 issue of The Rearguard. Vol. 9, Issue 1. The version here is a longer draft than the one that was in the paper. I was told to turn in an almost 2500 word story, that was – for some reason – cut down to almost 1000 in the paper. Again, I’m not sure why, but the editor – Jesse Harrington – did a really good job on both the long and short version, and was really the heart and soul of the paper during that year I was there. To my knowledge, he and Josh Gross – The Editor – manually edited every word of every story in every issue, no small feat. The illustrations were done by a staff member, who I have since forgotten. Many apologies.
Anyway, here’s the story – with a few small edits for this presentation – regarding an overview of this holiday’s history. Enjoy.)
With October comes one of my favorite holidays, Halloween. I have fond memories of this time of year, littered with the Costumes, Parties, and “trick-or-treating” of years past. It seems that I am not alone in wanting to celebrate this wanton extravaganza of tooth rot, parties, and pretending to be someone you’re not. In the US alone, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday, bringing in for retailers roughly $7 Billion annually. Yes, with a B. Every year, Americans sink the equivalent cost of 213,000 Hummers into costumes, candy, pumpkins & horror films. Not bad for a holiday with curious and fear-based origins.
Most historians agree that the earliest versions of the holiday stem from the Celts, near or around fifth century BC. Then, it was called Samhain (pronounced sow-in, though try telling Danzig that). Samhain was the celebration of the New Year, marking the end of the summer and the harvest (falling on October 31st, more or less). Since winter was around the corner, the time of year was always a bit scary for most folk, as people invariably died during those dark and cold months where there was little food and insulated shelter.
As if that weren’t enough to bring you down, the Celts also believed that the dead could walk amongst the living on the New Year and would then cause mischief and mayhem in the village (often resulting in the damaging of crops, back then the only kind of mischief anyone got upset about). To help sate the spirits of the dead, villagers would leave food and wine out for the dead to consume, which never seemed to work; while the food and wine always wound up consumed, it did not seem to affect any noticeable change in the world around them. The only upshot to the dead walking among us seemed to be that the Druids (Celtic priests) were better at making inaccurate predictions about the coming future, instilling some amount of hope more fear to a culture that was only going to be able to survive the winter on a steady diet of worry and misery.
To get people’s spirits up, the Druids would have huge bonfires in the woods. The villagers would then put out all other fires in town, and come to dressed in animal skins and masks (so the ghosts that were wandering around would think the villagers were ghosts too). In the fire they burned crops (assumedly to beat the dead-walking-amongst-the-living to the punch of ruining them). Animal sacrifices & attempted fortune telling rounded out this fun-filled evening, and at the end of the night everyone would return to their homes, relight their fires using a piece of the sacred Druidic fire they attended, and spend the rest of the winter cowering in fear and hunger until the Sun mysteriously came back many months later. (This would be emulated years later by every teenager suffering from a medium-to-large breakup in the years to follow.)
While the Celts were happy with being frightened and miserable every year, the Romans (being Romans) were not. They decided to conquer the Celts around 43 AD so they could combine two of their own holidays with Samhain, encouraging the Celts to see their way of thinking. (Apparently the Romans felt guilty about having too many holidays, and wanted to combine them with someone else’s.) Feralia was one of those, a holiday dedicated to the dead (a common theme for holidays in those days). The other, known as Pomona, was a celebration for the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, which apparently introduced apples (for future “bobbing”) into the Samhain mythology. This new Roman “combined” holiday kept the name, but was moved to November 1st (shattering the traditions and culture of the Celts and making this much more fun and light-hearted for the Romans). This supposedly encouraged the Celts to follow Roman beliefs, creating the illusion that everyone was now content to maintain the status quo for another few hundred years after the bloodbath of being conquered (or, at least, to not talk about any discontentment that may have theoretically existed in public).
As is often the case with many things, Christianity was the catalyst for the next big deconstruction of a perfectly strange a creepy Pagan holiday. Since Christianity had spread like a virus to The Land Formerly Controlled By Celts (no relation to TAFKAP), most Former Celts were now considered Roman Catholics, in spite of their resistance against this. Around 800 AD, the king of the Catholics, Pope Boniface IV (named after the Patron Saint of Brewers and Germany) declared that Samhain was now called All Saints’ Day to further distance it from the Pagan rites, and it was now intended for honoring (wait for it) saints & martyrs (read = more dead people). Depending on where you lived, you might also call it All-hallows, or All-hallowmas (for you linguistic types out there, that comes from the Middle English word, alholowmesse, meaning, you guessed it, All Saints’ Day).
A few hundred years later the church also decided that there were too many saints and martyrs to celebrate, and added November 2nd to the list of days to honor the dead (this time called All Souls’ Day to differentiate it from the day before). All Souls’ day involved the usual celebratory kinds of things: bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes (this time in the guise of saints, angels or devils). And, since three is better than two, threw in October 31st as a pre-holiday holiday. To keep things straight, people began to refer to October 31st as All-hallows Eve, which was eventually shorted into the trademarked name companies now use to sell us plastic pumpkins and candy that tastes like wax.
During the All Soul’s Day parades, many poor people would beg for food from those who were better off. Traditionally, “soul cakes” were given to these poor people, in exchange for their prayers for the well off family members’ dead relatives. (“Soul cakes” are, sadly, just a simple piece of pastry, and has nothing to do with eating spiritual souls.) Eventually the transaction of “soul cakes” for prayer began to be called “going a-souling,” which should have been way more evil than it actually was. Soon enough other food, money, and even alcohol was given out when people went “a-souling,” and neighborhood kids began to join in on the act (beginning the time-honored tradition of underage drinking on Halloween). Of course, the Catholic Church dug these traditions much more than the ancient “lets leave food and wine out for the evil spirits” Celtic version, and endorsed “going a-souling” whole heartedly despite it’s emphasis on being considerate to kids and poor folk, and sort of resembling this Pagan practice anyway.
This version of the holiday was unchanged (for the most part) until America opened for business, and people started to rape and pillage a new land in an attempt to start new holidays. As Protestants controlled New England, so the primary foothold for Halloween began in the southern colonies. Not content to keep using an established tradition in a new world, the new Catholic version of this holiday meshed with all the various ethnic groups that made up the new American people, thus perverting the celebration further.
The primary American treatment of the holiday fell on All-Hallows Eve, and involved “play parties,” huge public events that celebrated town harvests and whatnot. Neighbors would drink (big surprise), tell Ghost Stories (that were much more effective when the story had been told the year before), dance (despite not having the benefit of things like Soul Train or MTV to teach them), and have fortunes read by strange wizened hags that cackled manically (using yarn, apple parings, and mirrors to divine things like “who you were going to marry” or, if you were a woman, “who was going to drunkenly decide you were their wife when they got horny”). People capped the night off by singing out-of-key, public-domain folk songs until everyone was tired. While the holiday took some time to get going full steam, when Irish immigrants began to flee the famine of 1846, the party really began to take off (probably because there was drinking involved). It was their idea to re-incorporate the Catholic focus on costumes and “going a-souling,” which was now called “trick-or-treating” in it’s American incarnation, supposedly to avoid copyright infringement.
We also have the Irish to thank for the introduction of the Jack-o-Lantern into the Halloween accouterments. The origin of the practice comes from the folk tale about “Stingy Jack,” a trickster who managed to best the devil at his own game of lies and deception in order to get things like free drinks at bars and apples to eat (making this the second “apple” reference in the historic account). When Jack finally died (according to the folk tale), he was not allowed into either Heaven or Hell, but instead was forced to roam the earth with a burning piece of coal to light his way. Jack, being the clever jack that he was, carved out a turnip and kept the piece of coal in it, so he could carry his source of light like a lantern. Jack, in his ghostly form, was thereafter known as “Jack of the Lantern.”
It became tradition to carve turnips or potatoes with scary faces and light them up in the hopes of scaring away Jack himself, or other ghosts that might wander by your house (and for anyone who’s tried to eat burned turnips, you know why he would be scared). These vegetables that were left on your porch became known as Jack-o-Lanterns, mostly because people weren’t that creative at the time. The English, who were good at stealing things from the Irish anyway, did pretty much the same thing, but used beets instead (assumedly just to be different). In the US, since no other holiday had claimed the fruit as it’s own, pumpkins made a prime target for this aspect of Irish culture.
“Mischief-making” was pretty common on Halloween too, something completely absent from modern culture thanks to worried parental groups and Mothers Against Anything Fun. Vandalism was extremely common at the time. Many hooligans would roam the streets at night, carousing, breaking everything in sight, and creating a truly frightening experience for anyone else trying to get a good night’s sleep. By the late 1800’s, a movement attempted to suck the remaining fun out of Halloween. Many people wanted to focus on the community-oriented aspects of the “play parties” instead of the ghosts and “scary” aspects of the holiday that seemed to appeal to hooligans so much.
By the 1930’s, the holiday began to take the secular shape it has now as a community-centered holiday. Parades were still a part of the celebration, but the “play parties” expanded to encompass civic centers rather than just neighborhoods. With most religious and scary aspects of the holiday censored and or eliminated by uncaring activist groups, the holiday was now much “safer” for kids. By the 1950’s, the holiday became focused entirely on them (thanks in part to the Post-WWII Baby Boom). With the focus on children, the “play parties” most often associated with Halloween moved back to neighborhood homes (so they could drink in peace). “Trick-or-treating,” which still consisted of asking complete strangers to give you something just because you asked for it, seemed to be the only unaffected aspect of the holiday. However, the violence and vandalism persisted on October 30th – “Devil’s Night” – well into the ’70’s, creating a combative environment in cities like Detroit. However, the ’80’s did a good job of stymying that sort of terror in our country.
These days, there are various permutations of Halloween all over the world, all more or less having their origins in the same creepy Celtic past, and all of them more complicated than an essay like this can quickly embrace. The American version has remained pretty much unchanged since the 50’s, with the exception of local variants and personal changes. Just to be different, the English now celebrate Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th, which consists of bonfires and the usual paraphernalia, but with a twist: the fires are used to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, a man who tried to blow up the parliament building in England in 1606. Not content to keep this kind of murderous tradition just for the adults, children walk around with miniature effigies on sticks, and go door to door asking for “a penny for the guy,” though they ironically keep the money for themselves when they get it. While this sounds remarkably like “trick-or-treating,” the English are too stubborn to claim this has any connection to Halloween, given that the country supposedly stopped celebrating the holiday around the time of the Protestant Reformation, and Halloween was Pope-o-centric.
The Irish incorporate “treasure hunts” and odd card games to the usual party games kids play, but more or less do things the same as their US counterparts. By far, the coolest adaptation is Dia De Los Muertos, the Latin American version of All Souls’ Day with origins that date back even further in South America, but are now heavily Catholoicised. This holiday lasts the historic three days, and more or less contains much of the same Catholic Functions that were creepy and fun. The biggest difference, however, is that families construct cool alters to honor their dead relatives, and use incense, candles, candy, flowers, food, booze, and photographs to decorate them. Next they have “grave picnics” on the final resting places of their family members. These picnics include food, tequila, and a mariachi band if you can afford it. Afterward they tidy up the site before they leave (which is very considerate). All of that, combined with the Day of The Dead skeletons that are a mainstay of all wonderful ’80’s animated rock videos and Tim Burton movies, make this holiday the single coolest version of Halloween around the world.
These days, with the heavily commercialized version reigning supreme, it’s hard to keep a positive attitude toward it when deciding what to celebrate, and how. The ghosts of consumerism, dental hygiene warnings, and frightened parents from the ’80’s warning you about razor blades and poisoned candy seem to haunt this time of year worse than the original Celtic spirits ever could. Fortunately for us, the holiday has evolved again in several cool ways.
Most modern adults have a nostalgic attachment to the time of year, who then throw parties that are just as wild at the early American ones before “vandals” supposedly ruined everything. Modern horror rock bands (The Murder Dolls, Misfits, Rob Zombie, etc.), coupled with the prevalence of the cheaply made horror movies that tattooed kids seems to love have helped return the themes of the holiday to the everyday person, rather than the entities that control the production of masks and individually wrapped pieces of sugar. And lets face it: people are just weirder these days. Now, a time of year that was dominated by choosing between being a ghost, skeleton, vampire or devil is now overtaken by hordes of adults dressing up in post-modern deconstructions of costumes, who then stay in character for days before (and after) the holiday, if not longer. (read = Goth people) While the holiday is still second only to Christmas in retail sales, the fans of this ghost and demon-centric celebration are doing all they can to wrest control away from the modern day Druids that want to tell you how to celebrate.