Friday, October 24, 2008

The Halloween Story

Credit to Wikipedia

Halloween traces its roots back to the Celts, who celebrated their New Year on November 1, signifying the end of harvest and the beginning of winter, the transition time between fertility and death.

They believed that on October 31, known as Samhain, the boundary between the living and the dead opened wide, and the spirits were free to cause havoc and bring on sickness and poor crops.

While those dang spooks caused nothing but trouble for the earth-bound, the Celts also thought that their presence made it easier for the Druids to see into the future. Their prophecies helped shape the Celtic plans for the upcoming year.

They’d all gather around sacred bonfires, torching crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods while listening to Druid mumbo-jumbo. Imbibing ale and wine was also a crucial part of the ceremony. Something about opening up to the subconscious state, hehe.

The Celts dressed up for these rites, wearing animal heads and skins to masquerade themselves to the impish spirits. When they headed home, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred Druid bonfire to help protect them during the long winter.

By A.D. 43, the Romans became the new boss. During the four centuries that they ruled Britannia, two of their festivals were blended into the mix.

One was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and that probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is still carried on today.

Then the Vatican got involved in the ninth century. Pope Boniface IV made November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It was the old switcheroo, giving a wink-wink OK to the Celtic festival of the dead by sanctioning a related, but church approved, holiday instead.

The celebration was called All-Hallowmas, from the Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints' Day. The night before was called All-Hallows Eve and somewhere in the mists of time, it became known as Halloween.

Later, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three inter-related celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.

During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" if they would pray for the family's dead relatives.

The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church to replace the olden habit of leaving food and wine for the roaming spirits (and also a way to promote a little charity among neighbors). The practice, called "going a-souling" became the domain of children, who would haunt the neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money. It lives on as trick or treating.

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. On Halloween, when it was believed all over the Isles and the Continent that ghosts came back to the physical realm, people feared that they would meet up with the restless and mischievous undead if they left their homes.

To avoid being recognized by these ghosts as mere humans to be trifled with in whatever ghoulish manner possible, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would think they were kindred spirits out for an evening‘s boo.

As European immigrants came to America, they brought their Halloween customs with them.

Not much of a party broke out in the early years. The Puritans frowned on anything that sounded like fun. It was much more common a celebration in Maryland and the southern colonies, far removed from the Mayflower blue noses.

There, the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups and American Indians meshed, creating a distinctly American version of Halloween.

The first celebrations featured big public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would get together and swap stories of the dead, tell each other's fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. Just ask Ichabod Crane.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, these autumn affairs were commonplace, but Halloween wasn‘t a national headliner yet. That didn’t happen until a flood of Irish washed over the U.S. shores, fleeing the 1846 potato famine. They put Halloween on the American map.

Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat" tradition. Young women believed that on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband.

In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to make Halloween into a holiday more about neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks, and witches. Pansies! At least the Holy See believed in spirits, angels and demons. Not so for the button-down Protestants.

At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day, focusing on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were barraged by newspapers, ministers, and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations.

Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century. Hmmmph.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become an accepted civic holiday, with parades and town square bashes. The adults had successfully snatched the fun away from the kiddies for themselves, but that would change after WW2.

Because of the high number of young children born during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from community-wide shindigs like the Fourth of July and into the classroom and home, where the youngsters could reign.

Soon the practice of trick-or-treating also came back. It was a cheap way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. You could give out a treat or get tricked, usually by a barrage of well-aimed eggs. A new American tradition was born.

BTW, the tradition of the jack o’lantern goes back to Ireland, and has a pretty popular tale to go with it.

It can be traced back to the legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking old farmer. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into its trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack, condemning him to forever wander the earth at night with the only light he had: a candle inside of a hollowed turnip.

Why is it a pumpkin now instead of a turnip? Did you ever try to hollow out a turnip? Actually, the pumpkin was associated with the harvest in America way before Halloween was introduced here, so it's a natural for the season. Plus it is a heck of a lot easier to carve a smiley face on than a turnip.

Halloween is celebrated in several other countries of the western world, most commonly in Ireland, Canada, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and in parts of Australia.

Today, Americans spend nearly $7 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's second largest commercial holiday. From the Celts to your local rug rats…Halloween.

(H&H would like to say that he spent hours poring over Druid runes, visited the Vatican library, and interviewed a Wiccan or two. However, he can’t. Being in a rush to get to the Halloween party down the street - the neighbors make a yummy witches brew - H&H took the low road and more or less stole the History Channel’s history of Halloween, added a few snippets from Wikipedia, and morphed it to his usual bewitched standards. Hey, whatever works. Happy Haunting!)

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