The journey continues…
When the Spanish Catholics journeyed to the New World and came across the indigenous peoples of Central America, they discovered they had their own festival of the dead. These ancient practices somehow merged together with the Catholic All Hallowstide and what came from that 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. It is a happy and celebratory time that makes light and makes fun of the dead 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 top) as well as create beautiful ofrendas (altars) (pictured below bottom) to deceased relatives decorating them with marigolds, an ancient Mexican flower of the dead, food and beverage. 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.
During this time, and even today in Catholic parts of the world, people visit cemeteries 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 mumming troupes and the Scottish guising (guise being another name for costume) is thought to be the ancestor to the American custom of children going around their neighborhoods on Halloween night “trick or treating”.
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; 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!).
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. Some parts of the southern United States where more Catholic groups emigrated to, did in fact celebrate Halloween. In the 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. 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 them in the hopes of winning the hand of the wealthy farmer’s daughter, Katrina van Tassel in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
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 practioners of magic and so were seen as a threat to God and the Church. For three centuries in Europe, from around the 1400s to the 1700s, people were tried and killed, either by hanging or burning at the stake, for witchcraft and sorcery, even during the famous Salem Witch Trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in early America. Black cats became associated with Halloween as they were thought to be the witch’s familiar, thought to be a witch or 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 being used as a Halloween decoration. In Ireland, turnips, beets and a similar vegetable called the mangelwurzel were carved with faces to serve as lanterns as well as a way to scare evil spirits, like the ancient Samhain bonfires. 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, 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!
In the 20th century 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 parties and parades along with “trick or treating” emerging as a way to keep children in line. 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. In the latter part of the 20th century and into our own time, Halloween has become a day for everyone, adults and children alike where we can scare ourselves silly at creepy “haunted houses” full of costumed monsters, dance the night away at themed 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.
And so I close by hoping that you all had a Happy Halloween, Samhain, Dias de los Muertos and Bonfire Night!
Next time, look for some ideas on college applications, writing stories and more holidays to come!
For some good books on Halloween 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 Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark Half of the Year” by Jean Markale
and many more!