The Ancient—and Morbid—Origins of Halloween

Illustration by Rachel Chiong
Illustration by Rachel Chiong

It came as a shock to me to learn that the inhabitants of Hogwarts are likely alone in celebrating Halloween in the United Kingdom. While it might be commonplace of witches and wizards, the muggles living in England, Scotland, and Wales do not traditionally celebrate Halloween. Ireland, on the other hand, is another story—but we’ll get to that.

The spookiest of all holidays is gaining popularity in countries around the world, and in light of this, The Spectatorial proudly presents this short but candy-corn-sweet history of Halloween.

For my own part, I adore Halloween. From a very young age, I’ve been a gleeful goblin every October 31st, and I would start brainstorming next year’s costume on the morning of November 1st. I was also a rather morbid child and have grown into a similarly morbid young adult. Imagine my glee when I started reading about the cultural traditions that Halloween is rooted in and found that they are intertwined with ideas of death. While this is a source of fascination for me, it is undoubtedly not everyone’s cup of tea. Consider yourselves warned, Spectatorial readers! The following will deal with the inherent darkness that lies at the core of the pumpkin festival that we call Halloween.

On the fun and educational podcast, Ask a Mortician, a tremendously funny mortician named Caitlin Doughty tells us that Halloween is actually “an elaborate chocolate covered cover-up for death!” Let’s unearth the cultural history behind this statement.

To begin with, Halloween is of pagan origin. It is not a holiday that we have directly inherited; it was created when religions and traditions collided in the United Kingdom  and then travelled to North America. In his book Death Makes a Holiday: a Cultural History of Halloween, David J. Skal writes that Halloween is the cultural equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster: a patchwork of parts from other cultures, religions, and rituals that has been stitched together through cultural contact and emigration.

The name “Halloween” is likely of Anglo-Saxon origin, a contraction of All-Saints-Eve, as it falls on the evening before November 1st, All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is a Christian holiday that assimilates elements of pagan traditions into a Christian context. On All Saints’ Day, families and individuals alike visit the graves of those who have died. Any soul that has passed can technically be considered a saint, if not an officially recognized one, so long as said soul was assuredly in Heaven and thus worthy of Earthly praise. This allowed previously pagan groups to continue to have an element of ancestor worship in their lives, while still adhering to the dominant Christian doctrine. In Ireland, this blending of Celtic paganism and Catholicism was especially effective. The Irish diaspora that made what is now the United States of America their home brought All Saints’ Day and Eve with them, creating the foundation of Halloween.

 

But before there was All Saints’ Eve, there was Samhain. Samhain was a three nights’ long celebration that marked the Celtic New Year. This celebration was considered absolutely mandatory; it was believed that if you did not celebrate it, you would be stricken by madness and—wait for it— die horribly.

 

The revelry of Samhain involved feasting and drinking and emphasized community, not unlike many students’ Halloween nights out. The drinking could also help induce an altered state of consciousness that mirrored the blurring of the lines between the physical, visible world and the unseen, spiritual or supernatural world. On a Samhain night the borders between worlds shift and become uncertain. Many believe that Samhain celebrations took place near sidhe or fairy-mounds, which were portals between the worlds whose barrier fades muslin-thin on the eve of Samhain.

The divide between the living and the dead also blurred and became eerily uncertain. This may be because of the influence of the yearly harvest time. When you’re gathering together your food resources for the coming winter, life and death are literally in the balance. Those who live now can very easily cease to do so because of a failed harvest, while a bountiful growing year is something to celebrate.

Rewind  back through time and sail across the ocean back to America. In the 1930s the little tricks played on stingy households had escalated into destructive mayhem, giving the holiday a bad name.

Toilet papered trees and toppled outhouses are now mostly a thing of the past, but for many, the question “trick or treat?” amounted to an extortion threat. By the 1970s this threat was watered down to the charming chant we now hear from the young children in mass-produced licensed Disney Princess or Avengers costumes. Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t risk broken windows or slashed tires if we fail to supply the hordes of tiny creatures  with enough sugar. A spectral haunting seems much more romantic  than a spent damage deposit, but maybe that’s just me.

Present-day Halloween celebrations still blur the lines between the real and the unreal. Adults can dress up and act like children, and children can wear outfits that call to mind adult personages—this often comes up when children’s outfits mimic the highly sexualized alternatives available for adults. However, the imagery of death never disappears. Every year costumes that look like they’ve crawled out of the grave sit on racks next to the year’s big pop-culture characters. Even chirpy decor magazines, DIY sites, and Mommy blogs will display pictures of cute kids with face paint that renders their chubby cheeks hollow and their face skeletal. The traditional Jack-o’-lantern  is meant to look like a skull or a decapitated head, and there are skulls and tombstones and various undead beings all around. You may even see the Grim Reaper when you hit the town this coming Halloween. You may brush against death at a party or sit next to Death on the subway.

This is, for many, very disturbing. Culturally, American and Canadian societies tend to be uncomfortable with death. But like medieval folk dressing up as the Devil and gambolling around ridiculously at a fair, by dressing up as things that scare us (mainly  dead things or representations of death), we can play with our fears and embrace our mortality in some small way. Even though it’s only one night a year, Halloween still allows us to walk between worlds: the living dress as the dead and the unreal becomes real. The latter makes Halloween the most speculative holiday we have.

And if anyone ever tries to tell you that Halloween is a holiday that was made up by candy companies or Satanists, tell them they’re wrong. Dead wrong.

 -contributed by Miranda Whittaker

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