Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Origins of Halloween

It is generally accepted that goths love Halloween. It's practically the official favorite holiday of the subculture, and has come to be associated with sugary goodies, costume parties, cheesy pumpkin themed jewelry, and scary movies. Mostly prominent in the USA (here's one thing we Americans have got straight), the celebration of Halloween has come to be embraced in Europe, and gained a bit of a following in Australia. This is a little confusing, considering the holiday actually originated in the United Kingdom! So what does bobbing for apples and telling ghost stories have to do with a holiday established by the Pagans to honor the dead? 
The festival originally began as a Pagan feasting day called "Samhain" (pronounced Sow-een). Samhain was the first of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar. It was also the most important, considered by some to be the Witch's New Year, a time for taking stock of the harvest and preparing for the perils of winter. People of the medieval ages belived that Samhain was the time when the supernatural and the mundane worlds were the closest together, and magic was in the air. To protect themselves from evil spirits that had easy access to the physical plane during this time, the Gaels built huge bonfires, symbolizing regeneration. In Scotland, Samhain was the Faerie's Feast. Thought to be the time when the Sluagh (no idea how to pronounce that one) could easily influence people, the Scottish people would leave out offerings of milk or bread with honey to appease the fair folk. 
Samhain began to morph into the more recognizable celebration of Halloween once Christian influences started to come into an area. It was heavily influenced by the Christian traditions of All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. On these days, the Christians would typically honor the Saints (on All Saints Day? No...really?) and pray for the souls of their loved ones in hopes that they would reach Heaven. It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints Day, and All Hallows Eve (or Halloween) was the last chance the dead had to enact revenge on their enemies before they had to move on into the afterlife. Fearful of vengeful spirits, the Christians wore masks and costumes to disguise themselves, and to confuse evil spirits. Candles were placed outside along the roadside to guide friendly spirits to the doors of their families, as well as to lead the living family members safely home. 
In the beginning, all of this Halloween-ness was flourishing in Europe, and was hardly recognized in the American colonies at all. There are no records of any Halloween celebrations in the USA all throughout the 18th century. The Puritans were actually very opposed to the holiday (which is strange because I always had a nagging sense in the back of my brain that they had something to do with bringing Halloween across the ocean). In fact, Halloween never really happened in America until the Irish and Scottish immigrants of the19th century brought it with them. They had to bring it over here you see, because Guy Fawks Night (a traditional bonfire lighting ceremony in England to commemorate the day King James I was not blown up by Fawks and other members of the Gunpowder Plot) was seeing so much popularity in Britain that Halloween was eclipsed. So! The Feast of Souls transformed from a Pagan festival to a more Christian oriented holiday, and swapped homelands. But what's the deal with the Jack-O-Launterns and the kids begging for candy?
They're so cute! But you probably don't need me to point out the fact that older kids can Trick-Or-Treat too!
Second to honoring the ancestors, feasting and food were the prominent events in any Halloween celebration back in the day, simply because the holiday was so close to the harvest time before winter. Thus, as Halloween became more modernized, the religious influences began to fade out but the importance of food remained (of course the Americans keep the food parts in :P). So we get Trick-Or-Treating from the costumes worn by Christians to ward off spirits, and the candy comes from the feast part of the holiday. Modern day Trick-Or-Treaters disguise themselves just like early Christians, going from house to house to receive the food that was important in the original celebrations. Some people believe that present day Trick-Or-Treaters become the evil spirits (symbolically of course) by donning their costumes. This is where the phrase comes from. Kids ask "Trick-Or-Treat" mostly as an idle threat to harm the homeowner or damage their property (fitting well with the role of evil spirit) and the homeowner typically gives out a treat to keep the "spirits" away. Some people also make the Trick-Or Treaters sing a song or jumprope or something, to earn their treats. I actually had one little girl come to my house for candy once and say "Trick For Treat," whereafter she commenced to twirl like a ballerina before holding out her hand for a candybar (well earned). 

Jack-O-Lanterns were also from the early Irish celebrations of Halloween. In Ireland, people would carve turnips or potatoes into lanterns, either to leave along the roadside as guides, or to set out as symbolic representations of souls left in purgatory, in hopes that they might one day see the light. When immigrants to America wanted to carry on this tradition, they started using pumpkins because they were native and easier to carve. We still put candles in them today, turning them into lanterns of sorts. I'm still not sure where the custom of carving faces on pumpkins came from, as the Irish would have just hollowed out a hole for their turnip lanterns. 

Song of the Day: 

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