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From its birth in pagan transactions with the dead to the current marketing push to make it a “seasonal experience,” America’s fastest-growing holiday has a history far older (and far stranger) than does Christmas itself
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
In 1517 Martin Luther took a stand on it. In 1926 Houdini made his final exit on it. In 1938 Orson Welles perpetrated a national hoax on it. Today 70 percent of American households open their doors to strangers on it, 50 percent take photographs on it, and the nation drops more than six billion dollars celebrating it. The night is Halloween, of course, and the history of its rise is as unlikely as any ghost story. Halloween has become the darling of American holidays. Only Christmas outearns it. Only New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday outparty it.
The festival was not always so lighthearted. For the Celts of ancient Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and northern France, November 1 marked the end of harvest, the return of herds from the pasture, the time of what was known in folk wisdom as “the light that loses, the night that wins,” and the start of the new year. It was also the festival of Samhain, who may or may not, depending on the source, have been the god of the dead but who remains a favorite of modern witches, neo-pagans, and fans of Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia . On October 31, the last night of the old year, spirits of the deceased were thought to roam the land, visiting their loved ones, looking for eternal rest, or raising hell. They particularly liked to wreak havoc on crops. They were also capable of revealing future marriages and windfalls, and illnesses and deaths. It was incumbent upon the living, therefore, to welcome them home with food and drink, to propitiate the grudges they might still be carrying, or to light bonfires and carry lanterns made from hollowed-out turnips carved into frightening faces to keep them away. The bonfires also came in handy for immolating vegetable, animal, and human sacrifices to Samhain. In other words, anything might happen on this hallowed night, or, given the sketchy state of modern scholarship about ancient Druid practices, we can easily imagine anything happening. Most accounts of the Celtic origins of Halloween, including this one, should be taken with a pumpkin seed of skepticism. About all we can be certain of is that some festival marked the onset of the long, cold northern winter when living conditions grew raw, food was scarce, and many died.
THE NEW IRISH SLIPPED INTO COSTUMES AND WENT HOUSE TO HOUSE SOLICITING HANDOUTS.
By the first century A.D., Rome had conquered Celtic lands, Romans and Celts were living cheek by jowl in small villages, and Pomona, the Roman goddess of orchards and the harvest, whose festival was celebrated on November 1, was cohabiting happily with Samhain. But if the Romans, who associated Pomona with the apple and therefore with love and fertility, lent the macabre Celtic festival sex appeal, the church gave it an air of respectability and a new name. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III, acting on the theory that if you can’t beat paganism, which was still rife throughout Christendom, you’d better join it, moved All Saints’ Day (which had been consecrated the century before when the number of saints outstripped the days of the year), from May 13 to November 1. The night before became Allhallows Eve, or Hallowe’en, and the old Celtic practices became Christian pieties. Instead of appeasing spirits with food and wine, villagers gave “soul cakes” to poor people who promised to pray for departed relatives. Instead of dressing up as animals or spirits to frighten away the dead, parishioners of churches that couldn’t afford genuine relics dressed up as saints. As the church militant marched around the globe, its hybrid Celtic-Roman-Christian celebration chased after it like a faintly disreputable but fun-loving camp follower. It was one of the many church practices that incited Martin Luther to action. Whether Luther chose October 31 to nail his theses to the church door to protest the practice of purchasing indulgences or to take advantage of the crowds that would be out on a festival eve—or whether, in fact, he ever actually nailed anything anywhere (and modern scholarship is beginning to doubt that he did)—tradition has him hammering on Halloween.
The Reformation’s abolition of saints’ days should have put an end to the celebration of Allhallows Eve in Protestant countries, but the festival that had survived Roman invasion and Christian conquest had gained too firm a hold on popular imagination and practice. In 1606, when the British Parliament declared November 6 a day of national thanksgiving for the foiling of the plot by the Catholic revolutionary Guy Fawkes to blow up the Protestant House of Lords the year before, the new holiday, coming just five days after the old, took on many of Halloween’s trappings while assuming an anti-Catholic and anti-Popish flavor. Bonfires lit the autumn evening, revelers carried lanterns of hollowed-out turnips carved into grotesque faces, and no one worried too much about the rationale for celebrating the quickening of a crisp new season.