Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A History of Halloween: Part 1


With Halloween only a few weeks away, you may notice one thing in stores: The loads of Christmas decorations. Though Christmas may be slowly taking over every other holiday, we can relish in the fact that Halloween does get its fair share of attention. This will be the first in my series of Holiday Histories. I will look at our holidays in America and share their sometimes unlikely beginnings.

As most people know, Halloween is a very old holiday, dating back centuries before the birth of Christ. Halloween was first celebrated by the Celtic people, who inhabited present day U.K., and France. The Celtics had two main festivals; one to celebrate the start of winter, when they had to bring the herds in, and one to celebrate the start of summer, when they brought the herds out. In that area, the cold came earlier, in early November, so it became the start of winter and the beginning of the new year. The finest of the herd were put in the shelter, while the rest were slaughtered for the festival. The festival was called Samhain, or summer's end, and was considered the most sacred of their festivals. The point of the festival was also to link the people with their ancestors and past. The Celts believed that the dead rose on the eve of Samhain and that ancestral ghosts and demons were set free to roam the earth (Much like the dead coming back in "A Night on Bald Mountain" from the movie Fantasia. You know that gave you nightmares as a kid).The Celts made offerings to the spirit world in hopes that the spirits of their loved ones would make a brief visit home to enjoy a warm fire at the hearth. Food and wine were set out for the dead souls of the ancestors, sure to be weary from their travels in the netherworld. To avert unwanted guests-any malicious spirits set free on that night-the Celts hid themselves in ghoulish disguise so that the spirits wandering about would mistake them for one of their own and pass by without incident.

The Romans eventually came and conquered the Celts and their rituals combined. The Roman's with their belief in mythological beings, celebrated the Goddess Pomorum, or the Goddess of orchards and the harvest, around the same time as Samhaim was celebrated, November 1st. The Roman celebration of the orchard harvest contributed the bounty of apples and nuts that remains a part of Halloween to this day. In other words, the Romans are to blame for those people giving you fruit and nuts on Halloween night. The Roman and Celtic cultures created what we might identify as Halloween in its ancient form. It was a night devoted to the dead, yet a night for divination and romance as well.

Then came the Christians. When Christianity spread across the Roman empire, the priests had to find a way to wane the new converts off of this pagan stuff. So, instead of destroying their rituals, they let them be, and eventually the people celebrated All Saints Day instead of Samhain. Both being on November 1st, and the celebrations being on October 31st. They had feasts and celebrations, but it wasn't in the same realm as Samhain. All Saints Day was to be a day set aside to honor the martyrs who died for their beliefs. All Saints Day used to be in May, but was set to November 1st to help assimilate people into the Christian faith and celebrations. People were told to pray for the dead, not to sacrifice to them. Instead of setting out wine and food, they set out soul cakes, which were little pastries and bread. The soul cakes would be given to the poor, and in return, the poor would pray for their dead family members. Eventually the custom changed to young men and boys going from house to house singing "souling" songs and asking for ale, food, or money instead of soul cakes. People were asked to masquerade, but to honor the saints, not ward away evil spirits.

A Hollowmas Soul Cake Song

Soul day, Soul day,
We be come a-souling,
Pray good people remember the poor, And give us a soul cake, One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him that made us all

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry
Or any good thing to make us merry.

Soul day, Soul day,

We have been praying for the soul departed.
So pray good people give us a cake
For we are all poor people,

Well known to you before.
So give us a cake for charity's sake,

And our blessing we'll leave at your door.

-from Poole, Customs, Superstitions, and Legends of Staffordshire

It was the Christians that gave Halloween its name. During medieval times, All Saints' Day was known as All Hollows, making the night before it All Hollows Eve, which became Hallowe'en, and then Halloween. The church decreed that all celebrations be held the day before Saints Day, thus placing Halloween where we know it today.

The new group off of the Catholics were the Lutherans and Calvinists who decided to get rid of All Saints Day, which meant no Halloween. Thus, for a time, Guy Fawkes Day became the fall festival for some Europeans. Guy Fawkes being the man who tried to blow up the Protestant-sympathetic House of Lords when Parliament met. The holiday was set up to celebrate the Protestants victory over the Catholics. The similarities between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day were "scary." Sorry...no more puns. They had bonfires, celebrants carried lanterns of hollowed out turnips that had been fashioned into grotesque faces. The eve of Guy Fawkes Day became "mischief night" across most of northern England, an occasion of pranks and skylarking. Boys now begged for coal, so they could have something to burn their Guy Fawkes effigies. Some people even went as far as burning the Pope in effigy. The eve of Guy Fawkes night can be connected with Devil's night, being the night before Halloween, a semi-holiday that is only celebrated in Michigan. Instead of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes and the Pope, the people of Detroit in the 70's burned down small businesses. The day has been changed to Angel's night, but is still rife with pranks and vandalism.

The Catholic's All Hallows' celebration, the old pagan folk customs of the British Isles, and the secular Guy Fawkes Day festivities of the English protestants all helped give birth to the Halloween we know today.

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