A Halloween History


, the word Samhain being Old Irish for “summer’s end”.  Incidentally Samhain was the beginning of the Keltic year, the Keltic new year.

Although our information about the Keltic Samhain celebration is limited, we do know that the celebration was what modern anthropologists call a “liminal” event.  It was a boundary, threshold, a “period in between”.   Samhain marked the moment of transition from one state to another, specifically the transition from the bounty of summer to the dearth of winter.

We think that in Keltic culture Samhain was also “liminal” in another sense – it was the time when the boundaries between our world and the spirit world were especially close, so close that inhabitants of the spirit world could easily come into our world and inhabitants of our world could – if they were not careful – mistakenly wonder into the spirit world if they were not careful.   Because of the closeness of the spirit world, Samhain was also a time of omens and prophecy.

This connection between our world and the “spirit world” has been a theme running though Halloween celebrations ever since.  Unfortunately, given the lack of written documents from the Keltic period, we do not have the information needed to state definitively what the features of Keltic Samhain were, and so we cannot say specifically which Keltic practices appear in our Halloween.

On the other hand, the contribution of early Catholic Christian practices to our Halloween is well documented.  Starting in the 800s (about twelve hundred years ago) the Christian feast of All Saints’ Day was set at November 1.  It was also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas, and so October 31 became “All Hallows’ Eve”, from which we get our word “Hallowe’en”.

In the Catholic Christian calendar, November 2 was All Souls’ Day.  All Hallows’ Day memorializes saints; but All Souls’ Day is a day of prayer for all the Christian dead.  In in the early Christian Calendar this three-day period – October 31 to November 2 – was one especially concerned with the dead, and it was in acknowledgement of this that our offertory today was a requiem, “Non nobis, Domine”.

In the Catholic British Isles this three-day period was the time for the preparation of “soul cakes”.  Soul cakes were special cakes set out on All Hallows’ Eve as an offering for the dead.  Some were also given out to the living as a form of alms.  People in need would go “souling”; that is, they would go door-to-door asking for cakes in return for promises to pray for the dead.  And today you not only got to sing the “soul cake song” you actually got the soul cake recipe.

Often people who were “souling” would carry turnip lanterns – hollowed out turnips with lighted candles inside – these lanterns representing a soul trapped in purgatory.  Both the practice of going door to door and lanterns in carved vegetables remain features of our Halloween.  However, when celebration came to the New World people used pumpkins, which are native to America, as a substitute for turnips.

There is an important second source of all the Winter holiday celebrations, and one which is not at all religious in nature.  In Northern European agriculture, once the preparations for the winter had been completed, there was relatively little farm work to be done until Spring.  In these societies, this fallow period, this period of relative inactivity, became a “season of misrule”.

During this time those who were lower in social rank – such as idle farm hands –  temporarily were allowed to mock and pretend to rule over their betters.  Choristers became boy bishops and mock-mayors and mock-sheriffs briefly usurped real ones.  A notably type of misrule involved bands of farm youth traveling and playing pranks on those they felt had not treated them properly or who were in some way “out of line”.  Often members of these groups would wear different types of costumes or disguises, a practice known as “guising”.

In social science practices such as “misrule” are called rituals of “social inversion”.  Misrule was a brief topsy-turvy world, a time of disguises, masks, and “mummeries” (that is, dances or performances).  These practices served as sort of a social “safety-valve” for their communities.

About seventy years after England first became Protestant, the Catholic Halloween celebration was replaced by the Protestant holiday Guy Fawkes day, which is celebrated on November 5.  Halloween continued only in those parts of the British Isles not solidly controlled by the Church of England, such as rural Ireland and Scotland.

The story of Halloween now requires that we jump from the British Isles to North America, and make no mistake about it: the Halloween we know is an American invention, or perhaps I should say a North American invention because we can trace its development in both the United States and Canada.

The best way to understand how the North American Halloween developed is to look at the American Halloween celebration of the 1800s (the 19th century).  If you could somehow travel back in time and see this celebration. while in some ways it would seem familiar. in many ways it would seem quite different.  What would strike you most about  this Halloween – especially in the first half of the 1800s – is how geographically limited it was.  It it is found only in those places with concentrations of Scottish or Irish immigrants, which were predominately urban centers.  Indeed, it is in North America that Halloween becomes an urban celebration.

In the first part of the 19th Century Halloween was primarily a celebration of Keltic heritage – how great it was to be Irish or Scottish –  a character it lost only when the celebration of Halloween began to slowly spread out of the Scottish and Irish parts of the cities.

By the second half of the 19th Century the Halloween celebration had, as it were, developed two distinct aspects.  There was the “domestic Halloween” of home parties where family and friends played games such as bobbing for apples while girls and young women employed various methods to divine who they would marry (an echo of the connection of Halloween to the supernatural).

But the 19th century celebration also had very public aspects, such as parades (with people sometimes in costume), young children going door to door reciting poems or singing songs (the mumming tradition) in exchange for fruit or nuts, and – the most famous public aspect of Halloween – roaming bands of prank-playing teenage boys and young men.  Indeed, newspaper accounts of Halloweens from this time seem to be overwhelmingly concerned with prank playing: “are they getting out of hand?”.

As we enter the 20th century, the Halloween celebration that we know begins to form.  We witness some interesting change.  Prank playing, which had been such a prominent feature of earlier Halloweens, begins to be controlled.  Halloween parades virtually disappear.  In notable contrast to the Christmas celebration, which remains centered on the family, the domestic or home Halloween disappears as well.  All Halloween activities become centered on the peer-group or age-group.  Groups of children continued to go door-to-door, but now they say “trick or treat” (a phrase which seems to first have appeared in the late 1920s to mid-1930s) and are given candy in return, a practice much encouraged by candy manufacturers.

In fact, giving out purchased candy gave Halloween the commercial or market tie-in which is a central aspect of all holiday celebrations developed in America.

Finally, post-World War II, in the 1950s, we experience the apogee of the Halloween celebration as we know it.  The advent of television in the ’50s not only standardizes the form of celebration but makes it a truly nationwide holiday, perhaps for the first time.  Indeed, the dominance of American movies and television is such that the American form of Halloween begins spreading throughout the world.  In the British Isles it even to some degree replaces traditional celebrations, including Guy Fawkes day.

My purpose in looking into the history of Halloween was to try to understand it, and we have now arrived at a point where we can say something about its character.  The Halloween we know is commercialized and is age-group oriented rather than family oriented.  However, it retains traces of its origins, in its connection to the supernatural as well as a spirit of social inversion, mischief and mockery.  If you have trouble seeing the social inversion part, ask yourself: “On what other occasions do we allow small children to threaten and demand things of adults, much less find it cute?”

Our Halloween is also primarily a public holiday, not celebrated in the home but outside and often with strangers.  Indeed, it is one of our most public holidays, during which we allow costumed children to come into contact with people we may not know well, or not know at all.  And in that – as the saying goes – lies the rub.

In the early 1970s a new controversy enters the history of Halloween, something probably most of you have heard about: poisoned candy and razor blades in apples.  Stories began appearing in the news media about people deliberately and maliciously poisoning the candy they were giving to children.  It is important to note that repeated investigations have shown that none of these stories was true.  However, the fact that these stories were not true didn’t matter, because people were prepared to believe them.  In the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, compared to the calmer –  or more staid –  ’50s Americans had lost their sense of trust in others.  No longer was the fact that someone may be our neighbor sufficient reason for us to necessarily trust them.

It is noteworthy that, even given this loss of trust in “the public” (which is to say “others in general”), Americans made real efforts to retain the public feature of the holiday.  New approaches were developed to create a “semi-public” Halloween by confining trick-or-treating to a supposedly more controlled space, such as a church or a shopping mall; recently I have seen advertisements for several church “trunk-or-treats”, another semi-public celebration.

Another innovation of the 1970s were the so-called “Haunted Houses” – which is to say simulated Haunted Houses, not the real thing.  In addition to being another “controlled space”, these “Haunted Houses” created a Halloween activity that was appropriate for youth who were considered too old to go trick-or-treating.  And not only youths: adults in general.  It has been said that this marked the beginning for the reappearance of adult appropriate Halloween activities.

The final aspect of Halloween history that I will speak about today is one I mentioned at the beginning of this talk: namely the claim by Fundamentalist that Halloween is Satanic.  I must admit that I find great ironies in this issue.  Several of our holidays have both religious and non-religious origins; indeed, don’t forget that at one point Halloween was the Catholic All Hallows’ Eve.  But usually the religious origin is Christian.  In the case of Halloween, the claimed religious origin is Pagan.

Two separate groups are making this claim: neo-Pagans, who see a pagan origin as a good thing, and some Christian Fundamentalists, who see a pagan origin as a bad thing: in their terms, “Satanic”.

My own view, as I hope my talk has made clear, is that while the Pagan Samhain was one source of hour Halloween celebration there were many other important sources as well: souling, guising, mummery, misrule and many more.  So while there was a long-ago Pagan Samhain, and while today there is, I am sure, a neo-Pagan Samhain, Halloween is neither one of these.

I will conclude by going back to a question I asked at the beginning of this talk:  what does Halloween mean?  I originally thought of giving this talk the title of “Our Halloween”, only discarding that idea because such a title on the sign outside would be confusing.  But Halloween is indeed Our Halloween in several senses.

The Halloween we know is an American invention.  We Americans selected and reformulated our inherited traditions to give expression to various elements of our culture.  Included in the inherited elements that we have chosen to retain are some which are not much expressed elsewhere: mockery, social inversion, and an acknowledgement of the supernatural.

It is our Halloween in that we have chosen to emphasize some elements which, while present in the past, were not as important.  These include: imagination, creativity, and the dramatic expression of who we are or who we would like to be.

It is our Halloween because it changes as our culture changes with new elements invented and introduced to express the themes of the holiday in new ways.

Above all it is our Halloween because we have chosen to make it our Halloween, and it will continue to be our Halloween as long as we choose to make it so.

So may it be.

Delivered on 25 October 2015 by David Wellman at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.