What's Behind Halloween
Where Our Weird Rituals Originated
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 14, 1998; H01
Halloween, perhaps our weirdest annual celebration, is even stranger than it seems. Unlike the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, it is neither patriotic nor historical, yet it is celebrated nationally. Unlike Christmas, Easter or Passover, Halloween is not associated with a particular religion. Yet it weaves spirituality, death and religious beliefs into our present and historical imaginations.
Halloween is hugely popular, infused with its own set of immediately recognizable symbols, rituals and stories. Yet most Americans have little, if any, sense of the hidden meanings and motives of the event in which they so enthusiastically participate.
Even its origin is complex and uncertain. Many Americans have heard rumblings that Halloween is a "pagan" or pre-European-Christian holiday with roots in Celtic traditions. A common and slightly elaborated version of this notion holds that Halloween is a descendent of the Celtic Samhain festival, which, on November 1, marked both the Celtic New Year and the day during which dead souls were believed to revisit Earth.
But the name "Halloween" has distinctly Christian origins. In efforts to stop seemingly non-Christian celebrations, the Roman Catholic Church incorporated Samhain festivities into the Christian calendar.
In 731 A.D., November 1 was declared All Saints' Day (All Hallows Day). October 31 thus became All Hallows Eve, in time shortened to "Halloween." Even with the encouragement of activities such as masquerading pageants of saints and the further, complicating step of adding Nov. 2 as All Souls Day to the church calendar after the year 1000, some "non-Christian" elements survive in Halloween.
Some elements, however, have a distinctively Native American heritage. One key symbol-the pumpkin-was unknown to Europeans before Columbus. But it was part of the sacred trinity of native American foods: squash, beans and maize, which appears in the form of candy corn and the corn shocks that decorate front porches. The original European version of the jack-o'-lantern was a turnip.
Some students of the holiday maintain that trick-or-treating is linked to Irish Samhain traditions and thus became popular about the time that the Irish began immigrating to the United States in large numbers. Presumably during Samhain, people opened their doors and provided food to the wandering dead, so people eventually started dressing like wandering dead souls and demanding food.
Others suspect that the custom was introduced to replace, or at least mitigate, the pranks or even destruction that typically accompanied the holiday even in the most conservative rural communities.
In Hoxie, a town of 1,500 in northwest Kansas, senior community members recall that, in the old days, "a certain number of outhouses became horizontal," when loose items such as garden hoses, trash cans and lawn furniture were dragged onto Main Street to block traffic the next morning.
However, trick-or-treating may be a relatively recent phenomenon coinciding with population shifts from rural to urban and suburban environments. It is, after all, difficult to go door to door when the doors are miles apart. Despite popular laments that Halloween is no longer the holiday "it always has been," folklorist Tad Tuleja argues that trick-or-treating may have developed during the 1930s as a means to control young people's Halloween night pranks.
Finally, many students of folklore see in Halloween a connection to England's Guy Fawkes Day, the Nov. 5 commemoration of a foiled attempt to blow up the king and Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Guy Fawkes Day features bonfires, children soliciting "a penny for the guy" and pranking.
Halloween also may be related to early American harvest festivals, with apple bobbing, hayrides, and many local variations of games to divine the identity of a future mate. Those games probably derive from traditional beliefs in Britain and Ireland that spirits loosed on Halloween made the day particularly good for augury.
Connections to death, disorder, endings and to what Western traditions take to be the separate and set-apart world of the spirits all are consistent elements in tales about Halloween's origin.
Cultural anthropologists, who study the forms and meanings of human culture, have found that among the most intriguing meanings of Halloween are those listed below, each of them a window into the cultural and social dynamics of the country.
The quintessential symbols of Halloween fall into three major categories. Symbols of death include graveyards, ghosts, skeletons, haunted houses. Symbols of evil and misfortune are witches, goblins, black cats. Symbols of harvest are pumpkins, scarecrows, corn shocks and candy corn.
The first two categories tap deep, irresolvable, pan-human dilemmas. Ways of dealing with and symbolizing death and evil are represented in some of the earliest archaeological remains of human ritual activity. One traditional means of facing the reality of death is to view it as a transition and to continue a relationship with the dead.
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