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Wed August 21, 2002
The Ghost of Halloween's Past
At the crossroad of new traditions and old superstitions, here's a look at the history of Halloween.
By Alphonse Vinh
Eye of newt, and toe of frog
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing
For a charm of powerful trouble
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
The high-cultured rhyme of William Shakespeare's witches in Macbeth can spell only one thing: H-A-L-L-O-W-E-E-N. But most Americans are familiar with a more childish rhyme: "Trick-or-treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat." Candy, costumes, pranks, and pumpkins have shifted the fearful to the festive. At the crossroad of new traditions and old superstitions, here's a look at the history of Halloween.
Why October 31?
Halloween is rooted in Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), the ancient Celtic festival of the dead. The Celts were historically spread throughout pre-Christian Europe, although they were concentrated in what is now known as Ireland. In Celtic tradition, November 1 marked the beginning of the new year. Crops were harvested, cattle and livestock were secured for the winter months, and bonfires and sacrifices were prepared for the biggest festival of the year. Now,this is where it gets spooky. Samhain was a solemn festival and it was believed that on that day, the spirits of the dead came back to Earth and mingled with the living. This marked the passage of the dead into the "otherworld." As legend holds, all manner of supernatural beings could be seen: ghosts, ghouls, faeries, and demons. So the pillow-cased children who haunt our front porches come by it honestly.
The date of Halloween was briefly cast into question when Europe was Christianized. In ancient times, the Christian Church had to deal with the Celtic festival, so it dedicated May 13 as the day for honoring all known and unknown saints and martyrs. But in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III shifted the date of All Saints Day to November 1, which was followed by All Souls Day on November 2. The eve of All Saints was called Halloween, from the Old English "All Hallow Even."
Halloween comes to America.
Although its foundations date back to pre-Christian Europe, Halloween wasn't always a part of American culture. When England became Protestant, the holiday fell out of favor with the Church. As a result, the customs of Halloween didn't come over on the Mayflower. It wasn't until the 1840s that Irish immigrants, fleeing their country's potato famine, brought Halloween to the United States. The Irish brought with them not only the Catholic observations around All Saints Day, but also the folk traditions of Samhain.
Accustomed to costumes.
Modern Halloween celebrations are marked by familiar customs, from costume dress-up to candy shake down. While some American toy stores would lead you to believe that they created the holiday, nearly all of today's Halloween
traditions date back to ancient times. Here's a rundown:
The familiar threat that children make when they
knock on neighborhood doors dates back to an old English custom. People would roam the village and countryside asking for soul cakes and threatening damage to the grounds if they didn't receive them. In alternate tellings, the giving of soul cakes meant a promise of prayer. The more soul cakes the beggars received, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors.
From simple ghosts to elaborate super heroes, the tradition
of wearing costumes at Halloween goes back to the Irish customs of Samhain. Clans and villages would gather around bonfires and dance in frightening masks and clothes to scare away evil spirits lingering between the land of
the living and the realm of the dead.
The fall pumpkins children and adults delight in
carving at Halloween get their name from a character in old Irish/British folktales. As legend has it, a man named Jack played a trick on the devil and at the time of his death was barred from both heaven and hell. His curse was to wander the earth for eternity with only the light of a small lantern. The Irish traditionally carved lanterns from local vegetables - pumpkins were a happy American adaptation.
The "trick" half of trick-or-treat dates back to ancient times, but was particularly prevalent in early American tradition. Halloween was often known by other names, including Devil's Night, Hell Night, or Mischief Night. Favorite pranks in 19th Century New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates.
While Halloween has now become a distinctly American holiday, similar celebrations occur throughout the world. In Mexico, for example, one of the important annual holidays is Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. In the Far East, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese citizens celebrate the Feast of the Wandering Ghosts, performing ceremonies to honor the spirits of their loved ones and to appease hostile spirits who are traveling between this world and the next. Drumming and revelry during this spirited celebration keep desperate and hungry spirits at bay, while the quieter custom of floating thousands of candle-lit lanterns on water is also usedto scare the ghosts away.
So we can see that throughout the world, human beings have sought ways to achieve a proper relationship between the living and the dead, to overcome our fears of the supernatural, and to have a little fun in the process. If only we could scare away cavities so easily. Happy Halloween!
Alphonse Vinh is the reference librarian for NPR in Washington, DC.