Monday, October 27, 2008

In Search of Halloween: Myth and Reality


Halloween! It is still a time when ghosts and goblins walk. But once it was a rowdy time for letting loose, for marking the end of the fruitful year and the beginning of winter. A time to howl, to rage, to scream. To raise the dead and frighten the living long into the dark October night and beyond. A time for raising hackles and goose bumps. A time when the cemetery on the hill in every town or village became Mussorgsky's Bald Mountain.

Of all the holidays we observe today, none has a stranger history than Halloween. Yet its obscure past holds the meanings of its curious rites and customs. Called Halloween because it is the eve of All Hallows, or Hallowmass, this holiday marks the beginning of a solemn period in the religious calendar.

Celtic Beginnings

Halloween's roots are shrouded in the mists of history. Born in prehistoric new year observances in Ireland and Scotland, Halloween is about death and people's attempts to understand death and control it. Even today, during this holiday, we joke about death, mock it and fear it. In the Celtic calendar, the first day of the new year was celebrated around the first of November. The Celts called this holiday Samhain (pronounced "Sow-en"), meaning "summer's end."

Two chief characteristics of ancient Celtic Halloweens were the lighting of sacred bonfires and the belief that this was the one night in the year when ghosts wandered about. Interestingly, the festival finds parallels in the seasonal holidays of other cultures and religions, including the Jewish New Year and the autumn festival of Sukkoth. Halfway around the world in India, Hindus celebrate Divali, their five-day New Year holiday, at around the time of Halloween.

For rural dwellers, Samhain marked the beginning of the winter half of the year. Unharvested crops--corn, hay, potatoes, turnips, apples--had to be gathered and stored. Cattle and sheep had to be returned from distant pastures where they had been brought to fatten for the summer. Excess animals and those too weak to withstand the rigors of the hard days ahead were slaughtered.

As in many other early cultures, Celtic society was highly structured. In addition to the Druids (the religious intelligentsia), the hierarchy consisted of a warrior aristocracy, outcast Fianna warriors, bards, brehons (lawyers), historians and other specialists, and landholders. Laborers, whether freeborn or slave, were at the bottom of the ladder. To make such a stratification of society tolerable, it was useful to have a time when order and structure were erased, and people could let off steam however briefly. Samhain, which lasted from October 31 to November 2, was such a period.

A Time of No Time
The Druids had a lunar calendar of 13 months of 28 days each, and one day to make 365, from which comes our expression "a year and a day." The day before the extra day was the last day of the old year; the day after was the first day of the new year. Samhain, the day between the years, thus was a special day--literally a time when time stood still. People could act foolishly. Men and women cross-dressed. House gates were unhinged and suspended in trees. Owners found their livestock in neighbors' fields.

Such mischief had a deeper meaning. The Druids believed that during these three days the veil between this world and that of their ancestors became thin. It was a magical time when the dead could revisit the living, and the future could be foretold through divination and prophecy. Rather than being feared, the departed were regarded not as the dead but as living spirits of loved ones. Sources of guidance and inspiration to be honored and feasted, they were seen as repositories of the ancient wisdom of the clan. The new moon (the time when the moon is virtually invisible) determined the timing of Samhain. During the dark of the moon, people believed it was easier to see into the other world.

Fire played an important role in Celtic life. Samhain was one of the four great "fire festivals" of the Celts. On this night all hearth fires in Ireland were extinguished. A new sacred fire was rekindled at Tlachtga, near Athboy in County Meath, 12 miles from the seat of the Irish kings at Tara. Runners bearing torches carried this new flame and relit hearths all over Ireland, symbolizing a fresh start for the new year. In Ireland and Scotland, Samhain was a night for traditional divination games about love or marriage and employing nuts or apples. People also went from house to house during Samhain asking for food and drink. Failure to provide them would result in practical jokes being played on the householder. One popular divination game, "bobbing for apples," called for young unmarried persons to try to bite into an apple floating in a tub of water or hanging from a string. The first person to bite into the apple would be the next person to marry.

Fairies--the "Sidhe" (pronounced "shee"), rather than witches and goblins--dominate Irish folklore. Although invisible, fairies are always about. Not as malevolent as witches, they can play tricks on mortals, although they sometimes are generous and helpful. One never throws dishwater or kitchen slops out of a house without first warning the fairies who might be passing and would resent being drenched.

Pope Boniface IV introduced All Saints Day in the seventh century to honor all the saints. First observed on May 13, it was moved to the first of November in the next century by Pope Gregory III in an effort to supplant Celtic pagan rites with the liturgy of the church. October 31 became All Hallows Eve; November 1, All Saints Day; November 2, All Souls Day, when prayers were to be said for souls in Purgatory. In spite of these formidable surrogates intended to displace the three-day period known as Samhain, the old pagan practices persisted.

Halloween's Traditions Merge
The early settlers of the American colonies had been largely British. Halloween was not among the traditions of the mother country. Instead, on November 5th, the colonists observed Guy Fawkes Day, an English holiday resembling Halloween. For his role in the failed 1605 "Gunpowder Plot" to blow up the House of Parliament, Fawkes was quickly tried and hanged. His plan had been to kill the first Stuart King, James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots. To mark the event, the date of his arrest was made a day of thanksgiving still celebrated in Britain.

For weeks before November 5th, British children prepare effigies of Fawkes (called "Guys"). These are set out on street corners, and passersby are asked to give "a penny for the Guy." The night of the 4th of November is known as Mischief Night. Children are free to play pranks on adults--and on each other. Finally, on the night of November 5, the effigies are burned in bonfires and fireworks are set off.

As celebrated today, Halloween is essentially a Gaelic holiday that found a place in the American calendar of holidays. When successive waves of rural Irish immigrants arrived on these shores, they brought with them their traditional Halloween customs. Young girls remained indoors and played parlor games foretelling the future. Bands of boys roamed outdoors, where their ritualized pranks were often attributed to spirits abroad in the night. And the New World's large pumpkins proved easier to carve into jack-o'-lanterns than the traditional turnips of the old country.

Two American Variations
Oddly, two rituals of America's Halloween later migrated to two November holidays: Election Day and Thanksgiving. To celebrate election victories, it was a custom to light towering bonfires. The practice eventually died out, probably because the chief fuel for such fires--discarded wooden barrels and boxes--was no longer widely available. In the New York City area, Thanksgiving Day was marked by public begging, a forerunner of trick-or-treating. Called "ragamuffins," children dressed in old clothes or costumes asked passersby on the street, "Anything for Thanksgiving?" This ritual, too, has vanished from the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Holiday Turns Ugly

For crowded urban dwellers, Halloween in the 20th century evolved into an outlet for letting off steam destructively. Mischief, once limited to such innocent rural pranks as overturning outhouses, removing gates, soaping windows, or switching shop signs, turned nasty. In the grinding poverty of the Depression, willful and malicious destruction of property was widespread. Even acts of cruelty to animals and people were reported. Neighborhood committees, community organizations and the Boy Scouts mobilized to organize safer Halloween observances and offer alternatives to vandalism. School posters of the 1930's advocated a "Sane Halloween."

To discourage destructiveness, children were urged to go from door to door and ask for treats from householders and shop owners. Surprisingly, the earliest use of the phrase "trick-or-treating" dates only from the early twentieth century. Immensely popular, these so-called "beggar nights" spread across the nation. The standard demand of "trick or treat" was soon incorporated into the vocabulary of Halloween, while the holiday became tame and commercialized. Not much steam is let off when tiny tots in dime-store costumes shuffle from door to door and mumble "trick or treat," especially when a treat is almost guaranteed. Window painting of Halloween motifs replaced the soaping or waxing of windows with candles. A giant step forward in artistic expression and creativeness perhaps, but not one calculated to relieve primal adolescent pressures.

Roots of Trick-or-Treating
Today's custom of trick-or-treating has a complex history. During the Middle Ages children wearing masks would go "souling" from door to door and ask for soul cakes. These were flat, oval shortbread cookies made with currants, and flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. The more soul cakes each beggar received, the more prayers that would said for the donors' deceased relatives. Because participants wore masks, they were called "mummers" (from momeur, a word in Old French meaning "one who wears a mask").

Also during the Middle Ages, parading, singing and dancing by costumed and masked mummers became popular in the British Isles at such holidays as Christmas and May Day. One familiar character in many celebrations was the Hobby Horse--the figure of a horse worn attached to the waist of a mummer. Mumming is an ancient custom still associated with various holidays. In Newfoundland, for example, it continues at Christmastime. Our house-to-house Christmas caroling may be a vestige of Christmas mumming. Mumming is a feature of the New Orleans Mardi Gras (French for "fat Tuesday"), the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In Philadelphia, mumming is the centerpiece of an elaborate New Year's Day celebration in which elaborately costumed revelers dance and parade to the accompaniment of marching bands featuring stringed instruments.

Playfulness Gives Way to Destructiveness
Halloween still has its dark side. Beneath today's comparatively bland holiday festivities lurks a wild and wonderful night of letting go. But, as if responding to a dormant folk memory, an ugly tradition has surfaced again, largely in cities. A throwback to the dangerous urban Halloween celebrations that led to trick-or-treating, mean-spirited outrage and property destruction have again been substituted for Halloween's earlier playful, sometimes noisy pranks. In community after community, mayhem has supplanted mischievousness. Cemetery headstones are overturned or smashed. Indelible spray paint substitutes for easily removed shaving cream. Shooting of firearms replaces traditional noisemakers. Mailboxes are vandalized or destroyed. Windows are broken, and automobile tires punctured or slashed. So serious has the situation grown, some communities declare a Halloween curfew for those under 18 not accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The destructiveness takes especially virulent forms in big cities with decaying neighborhoods. During the 1980s and 1990s in large cities, notably Detroit and Camden, N.J., two cities with rates of poverty and crime, the night of October 30th was called "Devil's Night," a time when anything goes. Dozens of houses--not always empty or abandoned--were torched by roving bands of looters or arsonists. The ability of firefighters to keep up with such mindless acts were strained. Entire city blocks were vulnerable to destruction. Cities responded by razing empty buildings, towing abandoned cars, removing discarded tires and limiting sales of gasoline. Accelerated neighborhood awareness campaigns and watchful volunteer patrols on what is now called "Angel's Night" have reduced the number of incidents, but the fires of resentment still smolder.

This article was originally published October 27, 2006.

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