October 29, 2013
Guest post | Halloween History: Part 1 with Rachel of Things I've Seen And Heard
Continuing with the week's Halloween theme, I'd like to ask you all to welcome the comic genius that is Rachel of Things I've Seen and Heard, who brings us today's guest post. Thanks so much for doing this, Rachel!
GREETINGS to all and Happy Harvest! My name is Rachel Foss, and today I am going to take you on a field trip through the History of Halloween!
One of the first things you should know is that the Halloween we know is VERY new, like ... there's a really good chance your grandparents didn't do any of the stuff we do, like trick or treating. Like most holidays, a lot of different cultures and traditions were combined into one, so let's start at the beginning and break it down a bit.
SAMHAIN (Prounounced "Sow-Ehn," celtic for "November")
The Celtics of ancient Great Britain/Ireland believed there were two seasons of the year: The Light Half and The Dark Half. The Dark Half started on roughly November 1 and was the entrance into a scary dark cold winter, which, if you didn't do very well during harvest that year, could potentially mean that you would starve to death. Because it was a very important transitional night between lightness and darkness, the Celtics believed souls of those who recently died could walk the on earth for just that night. To appease these spirits, they had a great Harvest Festival, lighting a giant bonfire and leaving offerings outside their doors so that the spirits wouldn't enter their homes and possibly take them back to the world of the dead. They're are still groups in Ireland that celebrate Samhain to this day.
*SIDENOTE* The association of bats and owls with halloween are attributed to this festival. If you light a giagantic bonfire, it's going to attract bugs, which is going to attract bats, which will attract owls—all of these nightly creatures hovering over their light became a part of the tradition.
On the other side of Europe in Rome, there was a similar harvest festival honoring the goddess Pamona, keeper of fruits and gardens. During this celebration, which was far less bleak than the Celtics', the Romans left offering of apples and nuts to the godess, thanking her for the wonderful harvest that year. This festival is also where we get the fall past-time "bobbing for apples," which was a common game during this night.
SO, of course like so many other of today's traditions, when Rome invaded the Celtic lands, the two harvest festivals merged, and when Christianity came into the mix, missionaries needed a way to connect with Pagans to turn them to their Christ. So on November 1, they invented All Saint's Day, or All Hollow's Day (hollow means Saint), which honored the Saints that had died. The night before was All Hallow's Eve and the day after was All Soul's Day, which honored anyone who died in the last year, keeping with the Celtic Samhain tradition. They all melded together and we now celebrate All Hollow's Eve aka Halloween.
WITCHES (From Celtic, "Wiccan," meaning "Wise One")
Oooh, I look really good in this hat ...
The Christians of the time were accusing some women of being "witches," dark creatures who had sold their souls to Satan for special powers—and where did this come from? Well, as usual, it came from a lack of understanding and discomfort, seeing strong independent women do things like ... using natural remedies to heal people, similar to what a homeopath would use today. This is also why we associate witches with brooms and cauldrons, because back in the day, a woman's place was in the kitchen, and she would have knowledge of making homemade natural remedies to help her family and village, and would be in her house with a standard kitchen cauldron that ANYONE would have, and a hearth broom to sweep the fireplace.
Poor black cats get such a bad rap for NO other reason than that they are black and tend to be nocturnal, so they were associated with the night, and darkness, and therefore evil! And for some reason it was thought that they were a witches demonic spirit animal. Good grief guys ...
DAY OF THE DEAD (Or Dio de los Muertos)
On the other side of the world, we had a South American/Mexican festival known as Day of the Dead, which ALSO celebrated ancestors that had died in the last year. As you may know, this festival is celebrated with skeletens and skulls, usually decorated with lots of vibrant colors and designs, which were OFTEN built and decorated out of and with cakes and candies! If you've ever thought we got Halloween skeletons from this festival, you were right!
THE VERY FIRST TRICK OR TREAT
They say that the first trick or treat comes from before the 16th century when beggars going door to door would promise prayers for special raisin cakes. People believed that someone who died who may not have been good enough to make it into heaven could be saved by lots of prayer. A little cake is a small price to pay for saving a loved one from the fires of hell ...
Guy Fawkes was this bloke in England during the reformation at the turn of the 17th century. He did not like that House of Lords were all protestant, so he tried to blow it up, but was caught before anything happened. It may sound a little boring, but every year in England they celebrate this day with costumes, masks and a effigy of Guy Fawkes, that is tradition for children to burn. It's pretty much the first time children and costumes come into play around this time of year.
SO now let's move over to us here in America ...
All of our immigrants from Europe brought their traditions and beliefs with them, including harvest festivals and belief in stupid things like awesome ladies being witches (see the Salem Witch Trials), and one of the best traditions we got came in the 19th century from the newly immigrated Irish ...
Pumpkins are literally my favorite part of fall, October and Halloween AND also has one of my favorite stories along with it. Back in Ireland, there was a legend of a mischievous farmer named Jack, who tricked the Devil into agreeing that he could NEVER take Jack's soul. So when Jack eventually died as an old man, he was too sinful to reach Heaven, but was banned from Hell and was doomed to walk in darkness for all eternity. The Devil took a sort of mocking pity on him and gave him an everlasting ember from Hell to light his way, so Jack carved out a large turnip (his favorite food) and put the ember inside as a lantern, and was from then on known as Jack of the Lantern (Jack O' Lantern), wandering around in the darkness causing mischief forever more.
So when a large population of Irish immigrated to America, they kept their tradition of carving turnips and putting candles inside around All Hollows Eve, but found that these new bigger American pumpkins worked much better, and basically other people just thought it was a cool idea and started copying them.
If you have any questions about what we've covered today, feel free to leave them in the comments! I'll be checking back to answer.
Tune in tomorrow for more history of Halloween starting with World War I!