Saturday, October 4, 2014

The True History of Halloween

Why is Halloween so celebrated and yet so controversial? Why do some devoutly religious people have a problem with one of the most beloved holidays in the west?
    Is October 31st, (as popular culture tells us) a night when witches fly on broomsticks and ghosts leave their graves? Or is it time for witches sabbats where pagans meet in secret and practice strange rites in the dark? Is Halloween an innocent custom where children dress up in scary costumes and go from house to house begging for candy treats?  Or is it (according to Hollywood movies) a night when vampires, zombies and demons are allowed to lurk about? Perhaps Halloween is a night when the veil between the living and the dead is most thin and communication with ghosts is possible. One thing we do know, Halloween is all about the mystery, one day set apart from the other 364 days of the years when things are not as they seem.
    If we wish to understand the meaning of Halloween it’s important to consider older name of “All Hallows Eve,” which means “the night before the holy day.” This is what it was called in Ireland, Scotland and England for close to 1,000 years. On the Christian calendar Halloween is the night before “All Saints Day” which is on November 1st followed by “All Souls Day” on November 2nd.     Therefore, if taken religiously, it is a Christian holiday (primarily Irish Catholic) brought to the shores of America by Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine in Ireland in the early 1800s.  It was when the Irish also brought with them the carving of Jack O’ Lanterns— or as it was in Ireland as turnip lanterns.
   However, like Christmas, Halloween has ancient roots in European paganism. All Hallows Eve falls upon the same general date as an earlier Celtic holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow-en) which was primarily a harvest festival and some say the end of summer while other sources report it is the beginning of winter.  For the Celts, Samhain was the name they gave to the month of November.
   There is little written about the pagan festival of Samhain in ancient texts but we do know it harkened the end of the year for pagans and November 1st was their New Year. Although Halloween is thought to be a mischief-inspired festival of devils and evil spirits it was never that in the past, especially not among the pagan Celts. It had more to do with having a good harvest and making preparations for the threat of winter. As a harvest festival, Samhain promised a resurrection of growth with hopes for the renewal of plant life and vegetation in the following spring. After all, it was the end of harvest and without a good crop in summer, starvation during winter was possible.
   In Ireland and Scotland, bonfires were lit among the countryside to chase away the darkness, in hopes that the fires would somehow remind the sun to come back again, to bring back a time when harvest did not die, but brimmed with new life and
growth on Beltane, or May 1— which is May Day.Despite vilification by modern religious conservatives, no one was ever sacrificed during Samhain, devils had no part in this festival and it was not exclusive to the Druids. In fact, Samhain was probably observed before the Druids came to the British Isles. The Celts did not have a Devil and had no god of death that demanded sacrifice that we know of. They did believe in gods, goddesses, giants, fairies, elves, goblins and ghosts — but none were primarily evil, and none were purely without fault.
    In fact, they were just like human beings, or ordinary folk you might meet in the countryside. However, during All Hallows Eve, it was believed the dead were allowed to come back and partake of food and nourishment at Dumb Suppers, where a special place was set for anyone in the family who had died the previous year. But much of the Dumb Supper has elements of Christianity in it and there is no proof the Dumb Supper pre-dates anything Christian in the British Isles.
   But the Celts did associate the dead with Fairyland and Halloween was an important date for the fairies who were thought to visit crossroads (or spook roads) on Halloween night.   The Celts looked at fairies very differently than we do now. They feared fairies because not only could the fairies bring you good luck they could bring you bad luck.  It was thought the dead lived in Fairyland for a short time before entering into heaven. (This is another example of the blend of Christian and Pagan beliefs.) The Pagan Celts believed ghosts lived among the fairies especially the ghosts of those who did not wish to leave earth. Instead, spirits of the dead lived in a place parallel with the earth. It was the fairies that crossed over souls of those who had just died into Summerland, or the Celtic afterlife.
   The Celts also thought on the night of October 31st the world between the living and the dead became blurred and it was possible to communicate with ancestors who had passed on. Since they feared the dead, they believed some of these ghosts could damage crops and so made offerings to them. But there is no evidence that witches who practiced magic were a part of Samhain since at that time, everyone in northern Europe was pagan.
   If we look at Halloween more closely it is apparent that American Halloween is mostly a Christian holiday but deeply rooted in European Paganism just like the other holidays of Christmas and Easter which are celebrated throughout Christendom. The first official commemoration of Halloween was when a mass was performed around November 1st by Pope Gregory IV in 835 A.D. as “All Saints Day.” The night before, October 31st became the “Eve of All Saints Day.”  It was on this night souls in purgatory were prayed over, as well.
   The belief in ghosts wandering the night on Halloween seems to have roots in Catholicism but may have older pagan origins.  Sources are thin about Samhain being a festival of ghosts before Catholicism came to Ireland and All Hallows Eve was born. It is speculated that pagan Celts may have worn masks to scare evil spirits away around the time of Samhain but, again, there are simply no tangible sources to support this idea.

Why do we trick or treat on Halloween?
The Irish Catholic belief was that on the night before All Saints Day saints could return and visit with the living. This evolved in to the idea that dead relatives might also come back on that night as well. Dumb Suppers were put on and an empty dinner place was set at the table waiting for the dead to return. Over time, this included all manner of ghosts wandering about the night. And no one celebrated Halloween as fervently as the descendents of the early Celts, the populations of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Souls being prayed over on All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, we can also see the basis of trick or treat and also a connection to Christianity.The trick or treat tradition is far older than the United States and was written about during the time of King James when the practice was called “guising” and “a soulin’.”
   Although our modern tradition of trick or treat was not officially recorded until the early 1900s  in the United States, there are elements that show it is much older based on the English, Irish and Scottish guising  or “mummer’s” pageants where people wore masks that were put on at Christmastime and also Hallowmas (holy mass) or Halloween. Another reminder that Halloween time was associated with the sacred and the holy.
Plays were held — many involving a ghost in “a winding sheet” (death shroud) –and afterwards the guisers or mummers would ask for soul cakes, coins or their supper as payment for the holiday entertainment. Guising, basically like a trick or treat, was also known “a soulin’” and was mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays.    Mummers, in fact, would put on their own plays, singing songs from house to house. Then, the line was not a definite one between older Pagan customs and newer Christian ones. The begging part of trick of treat has Christian origins as well, since impoverished people would beg from house to house the night before All Saints Day, asking for bread, sweets or coins so they might pray for the dead in the family in order to help them enter into heaven. These were adults and impoverished persons who did the begging. Many dressed in masks and costumes. Sometimes children would join the guisers to beg and pray, as well.
At the time, it was believed anyone’s prayers could help souls in purgatory even prayers said by the poor.  The population was happy to reward anyone who would pray over dead relatives. In fact, trick or treat and Christmas caroling have the same origins. Guising was not only practiced at Halloween it also was a custom at Christmas time.    The “tricking” part of Halloween seems to pretty much be an American introduction to the holiday in the 20th Century. In fact, pranks on Halloween were more common than begging for treats in the first part of the 20th century.  However, trick or treat is a custom that is around 500 years old.  It is interesting to note that “guising” is related to the word disguise (or the wearing of costumes) and “a soulin’” is a reminder that the practice was done to help souls of the deceased move out of purgatory into heaven.  Guising and a soulin’ were also carried out on Christmas Eve, Christmas night, New Years Eve and New Year’s Day.
How did Halloween become associated with devils and evil spirits?
   The idea of devils at Halloween came mostly with the advent of Protestantism in Europe after the split from the Catholic Church. Complaints by Protestant leaders were that too many pagan customs and practices had infiltrated the Catholic Church with its religious statues, pagan-inspired holidays and the burning of incense which broke away from the true asceticism and self denial of Christianity. In other words, it was alleged Catholics allowed paganism (which was considered devilish) into their churches. This Protestant belief wasn’t entirely without basis.  There are clear remnants of Paganism in Roman Catholicism. Early church officials saw the only way to convert the pagan tribes of Europe to Christianity by the early Christian church was to allow them to retain their deeply-ingrained pagan customs and festivals. Later, these pagan festivals were given Christian names and some of the earlier gods and goddesses were transformed into Catholic saints. 
So if we look at Protestantism that reached the shores of America early on, none had any tradition of Halloween merriment. The early puritans did not acknowledge Halloween nor did they celebrate Christmas. These were considered pagan holidays born of revelry, unrestraint and sinfulness. To the Puritans, life on earth was suffering and any rewards here were meager and spare. Heaven is what was hoped for and no one should celebrate life on earth which was looked upon as a crucible.
    Yet there was not a wide gulf between Protestantism, Paganism and Catholicism in this idea since Pagans and Christians also saw life as suffering to a degree. The latter two faiths believed persons might have some element of control if they prayed in the right way or if they practiced the correct form of magic or ritual. They also believed the spirit world was not only real but that spirits remained interactive with the living, should be given respect and not demonized.

Why did ghosts appearing at Halloween become associated with evil?
   When Protestantism took hold in Europe there was no longer the concept of a purgatory in their church— just of heaven and hell—and no place in between. This erased the explanation of ghosts or spirits being neutral, or at least not evil as souls who left purgatory for just a short while. The good souls got to go to heaven and the wicked souls went to hell. It was surmised that no good soul would ever want to leave heaven so it a ghost appeared it had to come from the bad place, which is hell and only devils leave hell, so it was thought.
In looking at these old beliefs what is there for us to celebrate in Halloween today?
   There is much to celebrate.  Good ideas die hard, if they die at all and Halloween is one good idea that is not about to leave us anytime soon. October 31st is now one of the most popular holidays in the U.S. second only to Christmas and is celebrated by all walks of life, all ages and races, religious and secular. It is a night when small trick or treaters scurry from house to house gathering candy and bells of Catholic churches ring call parishioners to the eve before the Feast of All Saints in which a mass is held for the dead.
    Halloween is a time when the impossible becomes possible and we can become anything that pleases us our imaginations or haunts our dreams. Men become women and women become men, small boys can race between Halloween mists donning the cape and powers of a Dracula, little girls can cast the glamour-spells of beautiful fairy queens. We are permitted to dress up in the disguises of what scares us and in doing so we gain mastery over our fears. Some can play jokes and prank friends either in costumes or cloaked in night.
   The dark magic of October 31st endures where we, like black cats, are able to walk along the neighborhood picket fence between the living and the dead. It is a balancing act to be sure because Halloween is not a time of certainty. Instead it is a night where unseen things in shadows are said to stir and come to life.

No matter what religion we belong to, All Hallows Eve suggests the world holds mystery in it. And even if not quite believed in by all who participate in it, this mystery can at least be explored through s√©ances, ghost stories, dumb suppers, scary movies, costume parties and fortunetelling games on October 31st. By this we are permitted to join a parallel world of goblins and ghosts, fairies and vampires, sorcerers and witches. Maybe the real reason is this:
We each know there are things which may not be able to be glimpsed under normal conditions. The perfect time for such unseen things to appear is when the veil between worlds thins...Traditionally, and in most countries, this is the night we call Halloween.
  -- Susan A. Sheppard


  1. Great Article Indeed! By the way, this is Beverly...;) )O(