“Brown leafed vertigo where skeletal life is known — I remember Halloween.
This day anything goes, dead bodies hang from poles — I remember Halloween.”
— Glenn Danzig, “Halloween”
Halloween today may seem — to some — like a played-out, secular commercial endeavour, used by candy companies and dollar stores to senselessly whore their cheap products to consumers, but the holiday also has deep religious historic roots, which Danzig hints at in the classic Misfits tune celebrating All Hallow’s Eve. Personally, I’ve always loved Halloween: the candy, the costumes, the pranks and the ghoulishly gothic atmosphere of graveyards and dark streets in autumn. However, apart from the impression left upon me by dozens of horror films from the 1980s that I absorbed from watching American TV as a child, and the banal tidbits of lore doled out in public school, I really knew nothing about why October 31 is celebrated the way it is.
Why, of all 365 days of our solar calendar, is this day the “creepiest”? Why do kids take to the streets in droves, howling and screaming for treats in outlandish outfits? Why are vampires, witches and beasts celebrated, rather than feared, on this one day? Surely, with all the seasonal images inherent to our current Halloween — jack-o-lanterns, dried out scarecrows, dead leaves — therein lies a connection. Upon pursuing this, I found that, indeed, it has all to do with the season, how the season was celebrated thousands of years ago and how those celebrations have evolved over time.
Samhain — Celtic origins
It turns out the Celts, a group of people living in northwestern Europe (Ireland, UK, France) thousands of years ago, celebrated the turning of the year on Nov. 1, after their crops had been harvested. They marked this event with the “new years” celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-inn) on Oct. 31, which involved ritual bonfires where animals were slaughtered and stock of supplies for the long, hard winter ahead were taken.
The Celts also believed that on this day, the world of the living and the dead would come together. Ancestors were honoured, with their spirits invited to partake in the festivities. However, evil spirits were also said to cause trouble for the living at this time by ruining stored crops or by causing sickness. It was also believed that the Druids (Celtic priests) would be able to commune with spirits and divine future events from charred animal bones over ritual bonfires. During these rituals, the Celts would don animal heads and skins to foil or appease the evil spirits.
With the conquering of northwestern Europe by the Romans in the first century of the Common Era, traditional customs began to be subverted by the Roman state, tying indigenous festivities to somewhat similar Roman festivals of Feralia and Pomona, which celebrated the dead and the harvest of fruit, respectively. When Christianity was imposed upon the Celts, Popes Gregory III and IV moved the feast of All Saints’ Day from March to Nov. 1 in an attempt to steal the pagans’ fire. All Saints’ Day, in Middle English, was called Alholowmese, or, All Hallows’, so the night before became known as All Hallows’ Eve. Now, through centuries of linguistic evolution we call the evening preceding All Saints’ Day, “Halloween.”
Halloween crosses the pond
As European immigrants flooded North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, Halloween traditions came with them. In the north of the United States, where the Protestant religious nuts opposed the celebration of this “pagan” festival, Halloween was not widely practiced. However, it flourished in the American south, where European traditions mixed with superstitions of the slaves and the spiritual beliefs of some of the local aboriginal populations. As with the Celts, Halloween began primarily as harvest celebrations, organized as community events. According to History.com, “neighbours would tell stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing” and folks would tell ghost stories and raise a ruckus, much like today. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s, with the influx of thousands of Irish fleeing the potato famine, that Halloween became popular across the continent. Irish immigrants also brought the custom of dressing up in outlandish costumes and going door to door asking for handouts of food or money. This led to today’s custom of “trick-or-treating,” where kids beg for treats or collect cash for UNICEF.
Jack-o-lanterns & creepy crawlies
Perhaps the most recognized of Halloween’s symbols is the Jack-o-lantern, but where did this ghoulish figure first emerge? It seems as though the practice of carving skull-like faces into food first began in Ireland and Scotland centuries ago. Folks would carve faces into turnips or potatoes (as pumpkins are not native to the British Isles), place candles inside them and place the burning rictus in their windows to frighten off evil spirits.
Legend has it that the first Jack-o-lantern was carved by a dubious character by the name of Stingy Jack, a drunk Irishman (go figure) who made a couple bad deals with the devil in order to continue drinking once his money ran out. Stingy Jack managed to wrangle his way out of paying old Lucifer back, but when he died God didn’t want him in heaven and the devil wouldn’t take him in hell. So, Stingy Jack was left to walk the earth under cover of darkness forever, with only the light of a small burning coal to guide him. To house the ember, Stingy Jack carved out a turnip, and was henceforth known as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack-o-lantern.
With Halloween’s own jump of the pond, the custom of carving Jack-o-lanterns came too, but the North American pumpkin replaced taters and turnips as the seasonal crop of choice for carving. Other seasonal elements, such as scarecrows and cornhusks have also become annual Halloween staples. Traditional Celtic imagery of death and evil spirits remain central to the holiday, as do other symbols associated with the night, such as bats, spiders, owls and black cats.
As Christianity became more prevalent in Europe, and such pagan rituals as Samhain were subverted or opposed by the church, practitioners of the old ways were often referred to as witches, and thus, such imagery persists today. Other Halloween favourites emerged from classic creepy novels, like Frankenstein, from folklore (werewolves, vampires and zombies), and early American and British horror films like The Mummy.
This day so hallowed
Which brings us up to date, more or less. According to the Retail Council of Canada, this Celtic seasonal celebration now annually accounts for over $1.5 billion dollars in economic stimulation in Canada alone. Halloween parties are the norm for children and adults. Indeed, when scanning local listings for something to do on Halloween, the choices are far from limited. Nightclubs hold dress-up parties where sexual innuendo is paramount, bars hold Halloween themed concerts and debauched masquerades are held in homes and clubs across the country. Kiddies dress up and are escorted by their parents around the neighbourhood, begging for handouts, while teenagers smoke grass and egg the homes of their enemies (often hard-assed teachers or drunk vice-principals, in my experience). Goths of all ages scour dollar stores and thrift shops for skull lights and ghoulish glassware, and dentists rub their disinfected hands together in anticipation of a cavity boom.
Has the Celts’ celebration of Samhain been bastardized beyond belief, in this year of the Common Era 2009? Should a time machine be possible outside of H.G. Wells, would a Druid brought forward through millennia recognize his ancient rites if they were to attend a Halloween social, a classic seasonal slasher flick or a Rob Zombie concert? While impossible to say for sure, if our time-traveling buddy were to stand in the shadows and watch as masked kids of all ages ran about through the dead and crumbling leaves beneath a full moon, approaching houses lit ghoulishly by Jack-o-lanterns to demand “tricks or treats,” I’m sure they would experience a shock of recognition that runs through the ages. The circle, in this case — though perhaps warped and distorted by jealous gods, both spiritual and economic — remains unbroken. Happy Halloween. May the dead rise and smell the incense!