Monday, October 24, 2011

Why We Do What We Do on Halloween


Halloween! It is still a time when ghosts and goblins walk.  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 the haunt of ghosts and goblins.
Of all the holidays we observe today, none has a stranger history than Halloween, whose obscure past holds the meanings of its curious rites and customs. Called Halloween because it is the eve of All Hallows Day, it marks the beginning of a solemn period in the religious calendar.

Celtic Beginnings
Halloween's roots lie 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 autumn festival of Sukkoth. Halfway around the world in India, at around the time of Halloween, Hindus celebrate Diwali, their five-day New Year holiday,
For rural dwellers, Samhain marked the beginning of the winter half of the year. Unharvested crops--corn, hay, potatoes, turnips, apples--were gathered and stored. Cattle and sheep were returned from distant pastures where they had been brought during the summer to fatten. 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 (called the Fianna), outcast warriors, bards, brehons (lawyers), historians and other specialists, and landholders. Laborers, whether freeborn or slave, were at the bottom.
To make this rigid stratification of society tolerable, it was useful to have an interval when order and structure were erased, and people could let off steam, however briefly. Samhain, which lasted for three days, was such a period.

A Time of No Time
The Druids had a lunar calendar of 13 months of 28 days each, plus one extra day to make 365. From this 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. The day between the years thus was a special day—literally, a time when time stood still, when people could act foolishly.
Men and women cross-dressed. House gates were unhinged and suspended in trees. Owners found their livestock wandering 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 period when the dead could revisit the living, and the future could be foretold through divination and prophecy.
Instead of being feared, the departed were regarded not as the dead but as living spirits of loved ones. They were seen as repositories of the ancient wisdom of the clan--sources of guidance and inspiration to be honored and feasted.
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, being a customary way of warding off evil spirits, 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 with torches then 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 time for traditional divination games about love and marriage, employing nuts or apples. People also went from house to house during Samhain. Failure to provide food and drink 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 sometimes they 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. Initially observed on May 13, it was moved to the first of November in the next century by Pope Gregory III in an effort to replace Celtic pagan rites with the liturgy of the church. It also was known as All Hallows Day.
October 31 became All Hallows Eve, and November 1, All Saints Day. November 2, became 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 Samhain period, the old pagan practices persisted.

Halloween's Traditions Merge
The earliest settlers of the American colonies were mostly English, and Halloween was not among the traditions of the mother country. Instead, the colonists observed Guy Fawkes Day on November 5, 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 Fawkes’s arrest was made a day of thanksgiving still celebrated in Britain.
For weeks before November 5, British children prepare masked effigies of Fawkes (called "Guys") from old clothes stuffed with newspapers. These are set out on street corners, and passersby are asked to give "a penny for the Guy."
The night of November 4 is known as “Mischief Night” when children are free to play pranks on adults--and on each other. Finally, on the night of November 5, celebrants burn the effigies in giant bonfires and set off fireworks.
When successive waves of rural Irish immigrants arrived on these shores beginning in the 1840s, 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 candle-lit jack-o'-lanterns than the traditional turnips of the old country carved and filled with glowing coals.
Even as celebrated today, Halloween is essentially still a Gaelic holiday that found a place in the American calendar of holidays.
Oddly, two rituals of early America's Halloween spread to other holidays: Election Day and Thanksgiving. To celebrate election victories, it became a custom to light towering bonfires. The practice eventually died out, probably because the chief fuel for such bonfires--discarded wooden barrels and crates--was no longer widely available.
In New York, 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 rural pranks--overturning outhouses, removing gates, soaping windows, or switching shop signs--turned nasty.
In the grinding poverty of the Great Depression, willful and malicious destruction of property became 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 1930s advocated a "Sane Halloween."
To discourage destructiveness, children were urged to go from door to door and ask householders and shop owners for treats. 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, and the holiday became tame and commercialized.
Not much steam is let off, however, when tiny tots in plastic dime-store costumes shuffle from door to door and mumble "trick or treat," especially when a treat is almost always 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, Old French for "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 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 parts of Canada, 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 a 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 Mayhem
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 resurfaced, 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 pranks.
In community after community, mayhem has supplanted mischievousness. Cemetery headstones are overturned or smashed. Indelible spray paint substitutes for easily removed shaving cream. Discharge of firearms replaces traditional noisemakers. Roadside mailboxes are vandalized or destroyed. Windows are broken, and automobile tires punctured or slashed. So serious has the situation become, some communities declare a Halloween curfew for those under 18 unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
The destructiveness takes especially virulent forms in big cities with decaying neighborhoods. During the 1980s and 1990s in Detroit and Camden, N.J., two cities with high 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 so many mindless random acts was 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 during what is now called "Angel's Night" have reduced the number of incidents, but the fires of resentment still smolder.


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