Are you Benny or Teddy?

Origins of Halloween

jackolantern displayFor many of us, Halloween is a special holiday, harkening back to our childhood, flooding our memories with costumes and candies of years gone by. For those of us that still celebrate as adults it can be even more fun. But where do all the traditions that make this holiday so particular come from? Where does the idea of celebrating the creepy, the hidden, the spooky and the monsterous originate?

Though the holiday has taken pieces from a few different places, the chief progenitor of Halloween is the Celtic holiday known as Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”). It’s a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter and while it’s difficult to determine how early it was celebrated, it appears in Irish literature as early as the 9th century. In those appearances it is already a well-known tradition and a temporal marker. One theory posits that it relates back to when the Irish and other British Isle natives were a pastoral people, dependent on the schedule of their herds that would be led back down from the northern feeding plains around November 1st. It is an important event in many different Irish mythologies, indicating its existence earlier still.

In addition to celebrating the previous harvest and preparing for the coming Winter, Samhain was a time of celebration of the Dead, as they were thought to be able visit with the living before moving to the Otherworld. The Aos Si , fairies for lack of a more complete term, were also thought to be able to move among the world of the living more easily during the time of the festival and offerings of food and drink were often left to appease the spirits. It was a time of increased activity in the spirit world, a precursor to the supernatural and fantastic elements that define it today.

In the year 835, the Christian holiday All Saints’ Day, begun in 603 to commemorate all saints and specifically those without their own day, was moved from May to November 1st. Some believe this was to coincide with the “pagan” Samhain as part of an effort to coopt and eventually eradicate the previous celebration. Over the next few hundred years the two holidays morphed, with the “Hallow” in our present holiday taken from the Christian sanctity of the saints and “-een” being a contracted version of “evening”. The Christian influence also aided in painting the holiday with a note of evil as the supernatural, spiritual aspects to the Celtic celebration, such as celebration of the Dead, were turned into malevolent ghouls and ill-intentioned spectres. Folklorist Jack Santino contends that there is something simply too basic to us as humans in the concepts of the Samhain for it to have been completely forgotten in the tide of Christianity.

“The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints.”

The Halloween tradition of dressing in costume is also of antiquated origin and intrinsically linked in this case to the activity of traveling house-to-house. Known in its earliest Irish and Scottish iteration as “guising”, children in costume would demand treats (then apples, nuts, or copper coins) in exchange for a song, trick, or other feat. The holiday’s English roots lent a similar practice with a religious angle called “souling”, wherein originally the poor and then later children would travel door-to-door asking for a “soul cake” in exchange for prayers for the departed. These two passages, the first from Lesley Bannatyne and the second from a 1895 edition of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly give a detailed description of Scottish youth roaming the countryside engaged in the activity:

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The earliest printed reference to the words “Trick or Treat” comes to us from the Letherbridge Herald in Alberta, Canada in 1927. By the 1950’s the term had become entrenched in the American routine, making its way into the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip in 1951 and a 1952 Disney cartoon had Donald go trick-or-treating with nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.

The celebration of Halloween didn’t really take hold in the US until the end of the 19th century but had a fair amount to add to the holiday once it did. As the early horror genre began to grow in Hollywood in the 1920’s and 30’s, the subsequent monsters made somewhat natural additions to a holiday that celebrated the spooky and the dark, giving us the Werewolf, the Mummy, and vampires, all films developed from mythical or fabled creatures. ‘But what about Mr. Frankenstein?’ you might ask. An astute observation as he is the sole Halloween icon based on a singular work of fiction. Frankenstein’s Monster, as he’s more accurately known, stands alone as a genuinely solo creation, with Karloff’s depiction immediately taking its place as our modern depiction. As mass production of costumes began to take off in the 1920’s, Frankie became one of the earliest and most successful. How different our beloved holiday must have appeared in the previous century, before we had the movie industry to lend us some of its most iconic figures.

A carved turnip lantern
A carved turnip lantern

Jack-o-Lanterns predate all these images and persist today as the most powerful symbol for the holiday. The name originally referred to a lantern-carrying night-watchman which then lent its name to the phenomenon also known as “will-o-wisps”, mysterious flickering bursts of light resulting from gas rising up over swamps or bogs and burning off (ignus fatuus), at the time often thought to be ghosts or spirits leading travelers away from their path. The practice of carving gourds and using them as lanterns had existed for centuries, with turnips being the most common in Ireland and Scotland. By the mid-1800’s the practice of carving scary faces into the turnip-lanterns in order to ward off malicious spirits was widespread, such as in the passage above. Once the holiday made its way to the New World, pumpkins were the more plentiful squash and a true evolution took place. Today carving displays are a common public attraction with the skill often reaching incredible levels. For me, it stands alone as one of the greatest traditions of any holiday. It’s active and creative, a good family activity with a healthy hint of creepy and an eye-catching sight in the October night. It’s a fascinatingly ancient practice and stands as the primary symbol for a holiday with many iconic associations.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster

This Friday, as you don costumes, carve pumpkins and carouse in the crisp Autumn night, take a moment to consider how many centuries of folks have shared in that revelry, that celebration of the dark, the spooky, the hidden and the supernatural. It is a spirit of freedom, of mystique, and of mischief that has continued to define the holiday, from its Samhain inception right up until today.

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