What is Halloween? – From Medieval Hallowmas and Dias de Los Muertos to the Present! – Part 2

We’re back to continue our thousand year journey through history to learn about Halloween and its unique customs and traditions. Let’s speed through time now and learn how Halloween has evolved from European Medieval practices and how it has been celebrated in early colonial America up to the Present-Day!

But first, let’s stop and learn a little about another noteworthy celebration that is a very unique incarnation of Halloween and not Halloween at all at the same time!- The Days of the Dead, known as Los Dias de los Muertos in Mexico!

La Calavera de la Catrina - Jose Guadalupe Posada

La Calavera de la Catrina – Jose Guadalupe Posada

When the Spanish Catholics started journeying to the New World in the 16th century and came across the indigenous peoples of Central America, they discovered that they had their own festival to honor the dead. The Aztecs, for instance, honored their goddess Mictecacihuatl who ruled the Underworld and believed that the spirits of the dead returned to visit them. They felt these spirits should not be mourned but rather to be celebrated. The ancient practices of this festival and other Mesoamerican traditions somehow merged together with the Catholic All Hallowstide and what came from these is the elaborate and colorful pageantry that is known as “Los Dias de los Muertos”, the Days of the Dead Ones, celebrated primarily in Mexico but throughout Central, South and even North America amongst Spanish-speaking communities.

The Days of the Dead in Mexico are a happy and celebratory time that makes light of the dead and the concept of death with all of the figures and costumes that come with this time. People prepare special food, like pan de muerto “bread of the dead” (pictured below left) as well as create beautiful ofrendas (altars) (pictured below right) to deceased relatives in their homes and in public spaces, decorating them with marigolds, an ancient Mexican flower of the dead, food and beverages that were liked by the person when they were alive. On November 1st,  the souls of children are believed to visit the living while November 2nd is the main festival Day of the Dead to honor all departed souls. Here people picnic amongst the gravestones of their loved ones, singing, dancing, playing music and talking with each other about times gone by. People are not mourning the fate of their own mortality but rather celebrating death as another aspect of life.

Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead)ofrenda de muertos

During this time at the end of October and early November, and even today in Catholic parts of the world, people visit cemeteries, as in the picture below in Mexico, lighting candles, bringing flowers and attending special “requiem” masses to honor their loved ones. One tradition that came from the medieval period that was practiced around this time, and even around other holidays too like the Christmas and Easter seasons, was ritual begging. In this case, the All Hallowmass begging was known as “souling” where children and the poor went door to door, especially to the homes of the wealthy, asking for “soul cakes” or food in exchange to pray for the household’s loved ones to escape the middle spirit realm known as Purgatory, where souls were “purged” of their sins, so that they could go to Heaven. This practice of ritual begging, which continued in other forms such as European mumming troupes, asking for money to build Guy Fawkes effigies to set on fire during the British Bonfire Night and the Scottish and Irish guising (guise being another name for costume) are all thought to be the ancestor to the American custom of children going around their neighborhoods on Halloween  night “trick or treating”.

Cemetery at Night on Day of the Dead

The “soulers” asking for “an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry/ any good thing to make us all merry” as one soul cake song goes, were adding to as well as re-creating a belief that spirits around this time could be appeased by providing food and beverage to the dead. So the trick or treaters we see around Halloween masquerading in costume are, metaphorically speaking, like the ghosts that haunt this holiday’s imagery, asking for candy in order to appease them. By wearing masks and costumes they disguise their identities in order to be someone they admire or want to be like, with some of the more “traditional” disguises of ghosts, devils and witches, all part of Halloween’s history, appearing every year. All of this in turn has become one of the most prominent customs of American Halloween (Really who wouldn’t want to wear a costume in order to get free food!).


Halloween Trick or Treaters

To speed things up, the “Catholic” Halloween was met with much opposition when the various “Protestant” sects came into power across Europe and England. As a result, its festivities were stunted and even the Calvinist Puritans who came to North America in the 17th century did not celebrate Halloween. However some parts of the United States not settled by the Puritans, predominantly in the South including Virginia and Maryland, where more Catholic and Anglican groups emigrated to, did in fact celebrate Halloween. In the late 18th and early 19th  centuries, autumn gatherings were popular for the first people of America where people would come together for dancing, merriment and preparing for the winter ahead with the harvest season and the making of warm quilts, among other activities such as fortune-telling. These get-togethers were known as “play parties” (see the painting below) with the British versions of these called Snap Apple or Nutcrack Night, featuring much of the harvest imagery we associate with Halloween today.  Even American author Washington Irving has his spindly schoolmaster Ichabod Crane attend one of these fall parties in the hopes of winning the hand of the wealthy farmer’s daughter, Katrina van Tassel in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

"Snap Apple Night" by Daniel Maclise (1833)

“Snap Apple Night” by Daniel Maclise (1833)

With the arrival of many Irish immigrants in the 19th century due to the potato famine, ghost stories, love divinations, witches, black cats, etc. were thrown into the brewing cauldron of Halloween. Long story short about why witches are part of Halloween is that they were thought to be evil practitioners of magic and so were seen as a threat to God and the Church. As a way to ultimately destroy pagan beliefs, the gods, goddesses and nature spirits such as faeries of the Celtic, Roman and Germanic traditions of Europe were corrupted into devils and demons in the medieval period as a way to steer people away from these so-called “barbarian” practices that were seen as creations of Satan, the adversary of the Christian God. People who still kept to the old ways, practiced folk magic or worked with elements of nature were thus seen as threats to the Church. For three centuries in Europe, from around the 1400s to the 1700s,  men, predominantly women, children and even animals were tried in court and killed, either by hanging (for a civil crime) or burning at the stake (for a religious crime),  for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. The famous Salem Witch Trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in early America, is a direct result of this persecution against so-called “witches”. Black cats became associated with Halloween as they were thought to be the witch’s familiar, either  a witch or an evil spirit in disguise.

The Victorians took a keen interest in romanticizing the past and so, like Christmas, “resurrected” and invented new traditions for Halloween. For example, the jack o’lantern was  used as a Halloween decoration. In Ireland, turnips, beets and a similar vegetable called the mangelwurzel were carved with faces to serve as lanterns and to scare away any evil spirits, like the ancient Samhain bonfires did centuries before. Pumpkins, a native fruit to the Americas, was in larger abundance in North America and soon people started to carve these into the jack o’lanterns we known today, becoming one of the major symbols of Halloween. You can look up the story of Stingy Jack (the real “Jack of the Lantern”) and his turnip lantern if you like!

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack-o'-lantern

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack-o’-lantern

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Halloween became more of a children’s holiday. To counteract much of the mischief and vandalism that was prevalent around Halloween night in the 1920s and 1930s, cities started to hold community-wide parties and parades along with “trick or treating” emerging as a way to keep children in line with the threat of a “trick” when not receiving a treat, be it food or money, disappearing into no more than the famous chant used today. It was not until after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s that Halloween became the way we know it today: children trick or treating in costume, attending parties and putting up fun and scary decorations. Despite fear over alleged contaminated candy and treats during the later 1960s and 1970s which proved to be mere urban legend, Halloween still came through as a popular holiday. In the latter part of the 20th century and into our own time now, Halloween has become a day for everyone, adults and children alike, where we can scare ourselves silly at creepy “haunted house” attractions full of costumed monsters, dance the night away at themed costume parties and get tons of candy!

So see there is much more about Halloween and its brethren celebrations than you thought you knew! All of these celebrate life and death, day and night, summer and winter and light and dark, the dual forces of nature that we have and will always think about, honoring, celebrating and pondering over what make us human with all the mysteries of the universe and whether there is in fact life everlasting.Nighttime Bonfire

And so I close by wishing you all a Happy Hallowe’en, Samhain, Dias de los Muertos and Bonfire Night!


Stingy Jack and his Lantern

For some good books on Halloween and Days of the Dead you can read:

  • “Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History”  and “Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night” by the renowned  Halloween scholar, Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (check out her website!).
  • “The Days of the Dead: Mexico’s Festival of Communion with the Departed” by John Greenleigh
  • “Day of the Dead” by Tony Johnston and Jeanette Winter (as a fun introduction to Dias de los Muertos)!
  • “The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark  Half of the Year” by Jean Markale
  • “The Real Halloween: Ritual and Magic for the New Millenium” by Sheena Morgan
  • “Halloween” by Silver Ravenwolf
  • “Halloween and Other Festivals of Life and Death” by renowned Halloween scholar, Jack Santino  (check out this article he wrote about Halloween on the American Folklife Center website!).

And many more!