The Historic Facts About Halloween You Probably Dont Know

Tradition is a complicated thing. The tradition of holidays and celebrations is not excluded from this, thus if you came here looking for a very simple answer, like “Halloween is really Christian” or “Halloween is evil and satanic” you will be very disappointed. Simply put, the answer cannot be simply put.

HOW DO HOLIDAYS DEVELOP OVER TIME?

When it comes to the tracing the exact and specific roots of contemporary Holidays, most people assume something like this: At one point in time there was a small band of people who decided to make set apart a day to worship some deity or commemorate some event, then they carefully passed down this tradition (or “cultural meme”) without allowing any evolution or changes, and here we are today with this same exact holiday. This is an example of a closed tradition.

However, the reality is that most contemporary holidays did not come to us as completely closed, or scripted, traditions. Instead they are, what we can call open source tradition. In the software development world, a product is open source when there is “universal access via free license to a product’s design or blueprint, and universal redistribution of that design or blueprint, including subsequent improvements to it by anyone.” Most traditions and holidays that are celebrated today have evolved and morphed into something very different than was celebrated in antiquity. Not only were most holidays already diverse based on the local regional traditions, but each successive generation understood, experienced, and modified the tradition. Not only was the tradition slightly modified and altered by each generation and culture, but it was also understood and experienced in a different capacity.

Imagine a large canvas that started out as a picture of a lonely house on the prairie. To the original ancient painter this expressed the idea of wealth and independence, for in his time, slavery was common, and most did not own property. Over time, hundreds of painters came to this picture and added on to it minor details, changing some of the colors, adding and removing elements in the house or the fields. To someone in the age of colonization it was the representation of freedom and independence, for in his time everyone lived under the rulership and taxation of nobles, and this house was secluded and away from that. Later modern painters came and added hues of age for to them this was a artistic masterpiece representing nostalgic longing of a world gone by. Finally, upon coming to this painting, you would be making your decision about the “meaning” of the painting, but which meaning? To whom? Which version of the painting? It would be impossible to make a simple answer without comprehending the complex evolution of thought and ideas. That is a simple analogy of the cultural evolution of holiday traditions.

THE EVOLUTION OF HALLOWEEN

The Historical Roots

This is where Halloween comes in. There are certainly indicators that some ancient pagan cultures certainly did celebrate a pagan holiday at about the time of Halloween. Scholars are mixed about the exact development of Halloween. Many sources say that the holiday we know as Halloween was the Christianization and remaking of a Celtic holiday known as Samhain. This is what we know about Samhain.

  • “Samhain, also spelled Samain ,  (Celtic: “End of Summer”), one of the most important and sinister calendar festivals of the Celtic year. At Samhain, held on November 1, the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to mankind, and the gods played many tricks on their mortal worshipers; it was a time fraught with danger, charged with fear, and full of supernatural episodes. Sacrifices and propitiations of every kind were thought to be vital, for without them the Celts believed they could not prevail over the perils of the season or counteract the activities of the deities. Samhain was an important precursor to Halloween.” (1)

However, it is clear that the early form of Halloween was certainly not a verbatim continuation of Samhain, but probably a Christianization of the pagan holiday, in order to maintain the local rhythms of seasonal holidays.

  • “It is widely accepted that the early church missionaries chose to hold a festival at this time of year in order to absorb existing native Pagan practices into Christianity, thereby smoothing the conversion process. A letter Pope Gregory I sent to Bishop Mellitus in the 6th century, in which he suggested that existing places of non-Christian worship be adopted and consecrated to serve a Christian purpose, is often provided as supporting evidence of this method of acculturation.”(2)
  • “In the 7th century AD, Pope Boniface IV established All Saints’ Day, originally on May 13, and in the following century, perhaps in an effort to supplant the pagan holiday with a Christian observance, it was moved to November 1. The evening before All Saints’ Day became a holy, or ‘hallowed eve’ and thus Halloween.”(3)
  • “Hallowen is a Christian festival on 31st Oct., the evening before All Saints, 1 Nov. It absorbed and adopted the Celtic new year festival, the eve and day of Samhain” (4)

Other scholars disagree and state saying that the development of Halloween was independent, as there were already Christian festivals that would better fit Halloween before the supposed adoption of Samhain into Halloween.

  • “Festivals commemorating the saints as opposed to the original Christian martyrs appear to have been observed by 800. In England and Germany, this celebration took place on 1st November. In Ireland, it was commemorated on 20th April, a chronology that contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain.” (5)
  • Certainly the festival of Samhain, meaning Summer’s End, was by far the most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar, and there was a sense that this was the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and magical things could happen, but however strong the evidence in Ireland, in Wales it was 1st May and New Year which took precedence, in Scotland there is hardly any mention of it until much later, and in Anglo-Saxon England even less.” (6)
  • It must be concluded, therefore, that the medieval records furnish no evidence that 1st November was a major pan-Celtic festival, and none of religious ceremonies, even where it was observed. An Anglo-Saxon counterpart is difficult either to prove or to dismiss completely.” (7)

The Name of the Holiday

The etymology of the name Halloween itself is derived from the Irish/Scottish Catholic tradition, and was first recorded in about 1745, while previously, starting with the middle of the 16th century the term used was “Eve of All Saints” (8)

If we further break down the etymology we will find that:

  • The word “Halloween” means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening” (9)

And that:

  • “In Scottish language the word “eve” is even, and this is contracted to e’en or een. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Halloween.” (10)

The Jack-o-Lantern

Furthermore, some of the symbols like the Jack-o-lantern, also have confusing and unclear origins. Some fundamentalists attempt to link everything to the Celtic Samhain, and anachronistically, state every Halloween tradition is a direct form of pagan superstition and “devil-worship.” However, such a simplistic view does not effectively engage the cultural complexity of this worldwide phenomenon. There are more Christian roots to the Jack-o-lantern then there are pagen roots. For example, there is an old Irish “Christian” folktale that is the best historic source for the Jack-o-lantern

  • “On route home after a night’s drinking, Jack encounters the Devil who tricks him into climbing a tree. A quick-thinking Jack etches the sign of the cross into the bark, thus trapping the Devil. Jack strikes a bargain that Satan can never claim his soul. After a life of sin, drink, and mendacity, Jack is refused entry to heaven when he dies. Keeping his promise, the Devil refuses to let Jack into hell and throws a live coal straight from the fires of hell at him. It was a cold night, so Jack places the coal in a hollowed out turnip to stop it from going out, since which time Jack and his lantern have been roaming looking for a place to rest.” (11)

The Custom of “Trick or Treat”

The earliest known use of the phrase “Trick or treat” is found in a 1927 newspaper:

  • “Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing” (12)

However, there are at least four possible sources for historic antecedents to trick or treat. These may or may not have worked in conjunction and contributed to each other’s development. These are Mumming, Souling, Guising, and Fawkesing.

Mumming

  • “During some Celtic celebrations of Samhain, villagers disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away phantom visitors; banquet tables were prepared and edible offerings were left out to placate unwelcome spirits. In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This custom, known as mumming” (13)

Other secular scholars disagree that the celebrations of Samhain influenced the Christian tradition for dressing up and mumming. Professor Northrup, for example claims such an idea is a popular myth, but is “nothistorically accurate” or “scholarly.” (14) Others say that:

  • “many of the feast days [All Hallows’ Eve, Christmas, Twelfth Night and Shrove Tuesday] associated with the presentation of mumming plays were celebrated by the Christian Church.” (15)

Guising

  • “In Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins.” (13)

It is noteworthy that the historical use of guising predates the historical use of “trick or treat” by 16 years, as the first mention of children guising is from a Canadian newspaper in 1911 (16) whereas the first recorded use of Trick or treat is from 1927. (12)

Souling

  • “In 1000 A.D. the church designated November 2 as All Souls’ Day, a time for honoring the dead… Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Known as souling, the practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money and ale.” (13)

The first published book on the history of Halloween, in 1919, connected the idea of “souling” to the current displays of Halloween.

  • “The taste in Hallowe’en festivities now is to study old traditions, and hold a Scotch party, using Burn’s poem Hallowe’en as a guide; or to go a-souling as the English used.” (17)

Fawkesing

  • “Still another potential trick-or-treating predecessor is the British custom for children to wear masks and carry effigies while begging for pennies on Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night), which commemorates the foiling of the so-called Gunpowder Plot in 1605. On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was executed for his role in the Catholic-led conspiracy to blow up England’s parliament building and remove King James I, a Protestant, from power. On the original Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated immediately after the famous plotter’s execution, communal bonfires, or “bone fires,” were lit to burn effigies and the symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope. By the early 19th century, children bearing effigies of Fawkes were roaming the streets on the evening of November 5, asking for “a penny for the Guy.”  (13)

At the end of the day however, we can look to recent history to find that the tradition of “trick or treating” as known today is very recent. In a survey of thousands of Halloween cards from the early 20th century shows us the cultural development of this idea

  • “There are cards which mention the custom [of trick-or-treating] or show children in costumes at the doors, but as far as we can tell they were printed later than the 1920s and more than likely even the 1930s.” (18)

The Custom of Costumes

Like that of trick or treating, the custom of dressing up in holidays is multi sourced and hard to track. There are some non-scholarly sources that think ancient (pre 8th century) pagan rituals involving some form or early mumming included primitive customs. (13)

However, some scholars and academics disagree with these assertions. (14)

In the end, it is the practice of “guising” that was prevalent in Scotland at Halloween from the 15th to the 19th century which is more commonly associated with dressing up in costumes. There are many sources that agree this is the most dominant historical influence upon the modern Halloween tradition of dressing up in costumes. (19, 20, 21)

It is also interesting to note that there is no record of costumes being worn in any Halloween celebrations anywhere besides Scotland prior the 1900, proving that this is a recent tradition. (22) It was only in the 1930’s that companies like A.S. Fishbach and Ben Cooper Inc began mass producing costumes, as flood waves of European Immigrants came to the United States and brought these traditions with them. (5)

IS HALLOWEEN BAD?

Just like the painting that was interpreted, edited, and analyzed in different ways throughout history, so too is the cultural phenomenon of Halloween an open source mixture of ideas, intentions, and implications. In essence, there is no one thing we can call Halloween, for instead todays holiday is a mixture of a wide array of cultural ideas, memes, and traditions, that scholars have a hard time sourcing. The key traditions that we associate with Halloween are either newly developed, or based on a very different manifestation of the same tradition in ancient catholic celebrations.

Today the holiday of Halloween is a cultural spectacle of consumerism and rakes in billions of dollars of profits to an industry that is only too happy to provide. There are rumors of strange satanic cults that celebrate this day as a historic holiday for satan (25). However, these people are as deluded about history, culture, and traditions as they are about the idea of Satan being a deity that is worthy of worship.

In that vein, there are two largely disturbing Halloween trends that are relatively contemporary evolutions (within the last few decades). The first of these is the sexualization of Halloween, which is the trend of producing and promoting costumes for women that objectify the female body. Men’s costumes are largely exempt from this trend, showing rampant primitive sexism still prevails in our “evolved” culture.

The second is the proliferation of brutal imagery, including gore, blood, deformed bodies, and etc, as symbols of Halloween. This trend is very new, as looking through decorations and costumes from the 70’s and 80’s will yield far more simplistic and “family friendly” ideas. This contribution can probably be linked far better to the recent cultural dissemination of gore filled horror films, than it is to Halloween. There are to my knowledge no studies whether utilizing gore filled decorations correlates to increased violence, though that is the common assumption of many. It should be noted, however, that a minority of the US population is involved with these extreme gore-filled displays. Even the haunted houses, that filled with all kinds of gore and horror, see at most, 3 million annual customers, less than one percent of the 319million American. (23) This is compared to the 80% of Americans who plan to participate in Halloween by giving out candy. (24)

In summary, those who participate in this holiday today, do not partake in any ancient pagan rituals, for regardless of the ancient history, which is largely inconclusive on this issue, todays version Halloween little or no ritualistic roots in paganism. Instead it is largely a modern consumerist invention, based on numerous rural traditions found throughout the Catholic English Isles between the 8th and 19th centuries. However, there are certain unhealthy trends found in modern celebrations of Halloween, specifically the sexual objectification of women and girls, and the proliferation of gore imagery.

Notes

  1. “Samhain (Celtic festival).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/520460/Samhain (accessed October 24, 2013).
  2. “All Hallows’ Eve.” BBC-Religions. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/halloween_1.shtml (accessed October 24, 2013).
  3. “Halloween.” Inside Encyclopedia Britannica. http://newsletters.britannica.com/oct03_articles/Halloween.htm (accessed October 24, 2013).
  4. “Halloween.” Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095917370 (accessed October 24, 2013).
  5. Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: from pagan ritual to party night. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  6. Roud, Stephen. A pocket guide to the superstitions of the British Isles. London: Penguin, 2004.
  7. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  8. “Halloween.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Halloween&allowed_in_frame=0 (accessed October 24, 2013).
  9. he American Desk Encyclopedia (Steve Luck), Oxford University Press, page 365
  10. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 1989.
  11. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (Glennys Howarth, Oliver Leaman), Taylor & Francis, page 320
  12.  “‘Trick or Treat’ Is Demand,” Herald (Lethbridge, Alberta), November 4, 1927, p. 5, dateline Blackie, Alberta, Nov. 3.
  13. A&E Television Networks. “History of Trick-or-Treating.” History.com. http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-trick-or-treating (accessed October 24, 2013).
  14. Northrup, Lesley A. Women and Religious Ritual. Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1993. p. 37-39.
  15. A Student’s Guide to A2 Performance Studies for the OCR Specification (John Pymm), Rhinegold Publishing Ltd, page 28
  16. Rogers, Nicholas. (2002) “Coming Over: Halloween in North America”. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. p.76. Oxford University Press, 2002)
  17. Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en, Boston: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Co., 1919, chapter 15, p.127. “Hallowe’en in America.”
  18. Louise and Gary Carpentier, 29 May 2007, editors of Halloween Postcards Catalog (CD-ROM), G & L Postcards.
  19. Frank Leslie’s popular monthly, Volume 40, November 1895, p. 540-543. Books.google.com. 5 February 2009. Retrieved 23 October 2011.
  20. Rogers 2002, ibid, p. 24-26.
  21. Addis, M.E. Leicester. “Allhallowtide.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly. 40:5 (November 1895), p. 540-543
  22. Dunwich, Gerina. A Witch’s Halloween. Avon, Mass.: Adams Media, 2007. P 17
  23. 23.   “Haunted Houses.” HowStuffWorks. http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/haunted-house1.htm (accessed October 24, 2013).
  24. “Trick-or-treaters can expect Mom or Dad’s favorites in their bags this year”. National Confectioners Association. 2005. (accessed October 24, 2013).
  25. “Is Halloween Satanic?.” About.com Alternative Religions. http://altreligion.about.com/od/holidaysfestivalsevents/f/halloween-satanism.htm (accessed October 24, 2013)

5 responses

  1. I appreciate the summary in the last paragraph, it’s probably the most helpful part of this post.

    So, Yuri, how will you be celebrating Halloween tomorrow?

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