Sunday, 31 October 2010

Trick or Treat? (Lessons from History 6: Halloween Edition)

Today is the 31st of October (as those of you who have calendars will no doubt be aware). Likewise those with any knowledge of popular culture will be aware that today is Halloween; the one day of the year when it’s totally appropriate for little children to take sweets from strange men. It’s also a time when there is nothing but Horror Films on TV and people actually buy pumpkins.

As you might expect, behind all the modern secular traditions, ruthlessly exploited by soulless supermarkets and commercialised almost to the same extent as Christmas, there is some historical explanation as to why little children dress up and threaten people into giving them unhealthy food and why we carve comically ugly faces into large hollowed out vegetables.

You might remember from my discussion of the origins of Christmas last December that the newly founded Roman Catholic Church was really rather fond of adapting Pagan festivals into their newly popularised religion. I also alluded to the fact that Roman Polytheism had a habit of absorbing local cults into its Parthenon. While last time the cult in question hailed all the way from Syria, this time the festival is very Celtic indeed, which explains why Halloween is celebrated mostly in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent England, as well as the USA; which was highly populated with Scottish and Irish immigrants in the early 20th century.

The festival in question is Samhain, which mean’s summer’s end. The end of October and the beginning of November have long been associated with the end of summer and the start of winter, especially in cold of Northern Europe. The Celtic calendar divides the year in half, the winter months from November through to April are the dark half of the year, whereas the months from May through to October are the light half of the year. As such Samhein marks the transition from the light half to the dark half, just as Bealtaine in late April, early May, marks the transition from the light half of the year to the dark half.

Samhain is known as a festival for honouring the dead, because it is believed to be the time when the barrier between the living and the dead are closest. The symbolism here is pretty standard; the dark half of the year is associated with death, because darkness and the colour black are pretty synonymous with death. Darkness is essentially nothingness, just like death in many ways. Similarly the winter months are characterised by lifeless trees and coldness, which is also associated with death. By contrast, the light half of the year is associated with life, for the opposite reasons. As such, the day in which the light half of the year and the dark half of the year meet is bound to be associated with the thinning of the barrier between life and death.

So what has this got to do with Halloween? Well when the barrier between life and death meet, evil spirits have a horrible habit of escaping their dark prison and infiltrating the world of the living. In order to protect oneself from these evil spirits, it become customary during Samhain to dress up as an evil spirit, so that they didn’t realise that you were actually living, because apparently evil spirits are not only dead, but incredibly stupid. It also became customary to protect your houses by placing a guard carved out of turnip (the Pumpkin is a later, American innovation). Bonfires were also lit around this time, but that has not transferred over to Halloween, but another common celebration that happens in a few days (I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about, if not, tune in next week!)

I alluded to the Roman habit of absorbing conquered rituals and cults into their own Parthenon earlier, and Samhain was no exception. When the Romans conquered Britain they associated the practice with their own Festival to celebrate their dead, Feralia. Unfortunately this took place in February, so they also associated it with the day honouring the autumnal Goddess Pomona, which fell in October. The Goddess’s association with apples is thought to be the reason why Apple Bobbing is popular around Halloween.

The Roman influence is not as strong as the Christian one on the festival however. While the Catholic Church was trying to establish itself over the whole of the Roman Empire, many common cults and practices were morphed into Christian celebrations. Samhain, then, was turned into All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, a day for celebrating the entire Catholic Parthenon of Saints and all dead people respectively. These days fell on the first and second of November, so the 31st of October became All Saint’s (or Hallow’s) eve, what we now call Halloween. All the spiritual stuff about revering one’s ancestors became associated with first two days in November, whereas the slightly more spooky stuff about guarding against evil spirits continued to be practiced in more Celtic areas like Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall and was later commercialised into what we now know as Halloween.

So dressing up and Jack-O-Lanterns come from Celtic traditions, Apple bobbing probably comes courtesy of the Romans, and the tradition of children begging for sweets probably dates back to the tradition of the poor begging for food from the rich on All Saint’s Day. So we owe the bizarre celebration of Halloween to the Celts, the Romans, Medieval Christians and an awful lot commercialisation.

The more you know, eh?

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