Evolution is a funny thing. On the one hand it seems incomprehensible to think that we all descended from little tadpoles swimming around in the sea and bumping into each other before developing a tolerance to the atmosphere and those much celebrated opposable thumbs. On the other hand, if you have the misfortune to live in a small-time town like me, it might not seem like we’ve come so far after all. But on the whole it’s fair to say that, even if just in an aesthetic sense, we’ve undergone a mammoth transformation in terms of evolution and that tends to be the way of the world, really. Take, for example, the evolution from the stream to the sea, the quill to the PDA, the wheel to the fucking space shuttle.
Suddenly Halloween’s evolution from traditional religious ceremony to commercial Hallmark fodder dumbed down for a juvenile audience doesn’t seem so bizarre.
It’s not that I hate Halloween; I fucking despise it. Don’t get me wrong, I detest Christmas too, but that’s a different article. There are many things I dislike about what Halloween has become. The first is, of course, trick or treating which, when you think about it, basically comes down to approaching strangers and asking them for sweets and I’m pretty sure that’s something we usually discourage as a society. At one end of the scale, it’s plain rude. At the other end, it’s a gateway to foster a penchant for prostitution in our youth. Think about it. Your child dresses up in exchange for sweets; the better they dress, the more sweets they get, which encourages the understanding in a developing mind that we are rewarded for the aesthetic services we provide to others. Suddenly young Johnny is working the lap dancing clubs and scouting for clients in the alleyways. All because you took him trick or treating when he was five. I hope you’re happy.
And don’t even get me started on the girl who goes to the fancy dress party as a zombie bikini model but conveniently forgets to buy the essential zombie make-up so is just stood there half naked like it’s completely sodding normal until she ends up getting inebriated and finds herself fucking the guy who came as Hugh Hefner whilst the rest of the party looks on in horror. Her parents clearly took her trick or treating when she was a child.
The modern Halloween traditions certainly make it one of my least favourite times of the year, which is why I’d like to take this opportunity to look back on the more humble origins of this holiday.
As with most western holidays, Halloween is a combination of religious ceremonies. For example, the modern incarnation of Christmas was initially an imperialistic initiative and is a combination of the celebration of the birth of Christ and the pagan Winter Solstice. When the Roman conquerors first began converting the Anglo-Saxon pagans to Christianity they fixed the date of Christmas to December 25th, thus falling within the pagans’ Yuletide (a celebration of winter) and coinciding exactly with Mother Night, the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon year. The idea was that if the Anglo-Saxons were not faced with the inconvenience of having to change the dates of their religious celebrations in the process of their conversion, they would be more likely to eventually accept Christianity as their religion. Scientology, you say? Oh alright then, as long as I still get my Easter eggs.
The origin of Halloween is a little more convoluted and multifaceted. It has been thematically associated with the Roman festival of Parentalia (or ‘ancestral days’), which was a nine day festival that began on February 13th and honoured family ancestors. It culminated in Feralia on February 21st, a celebration of the souls of the dead, and citizens were encouraged to bring offerings of food and drink to lay at the tombs of their loved ones.
It has also been more closely associated with the Catholic All Saints Day, which was introduced by Pope Boniface in 609 or 610AD and originally fell on May 13th. This was a day to honour all of the saints in heaven, both those that had reached fame for their saintly deeds, and those that were completely unknown. This eventually suffered the same fate as the celebration of the birth of Christ and was, just over a century later, moved by Pope Gregory III to November 1st in order to replace the pagan Festival of the Dead, a similar concept to Feralia.
Whilst these festivals and celebrations undoubtedly contributed to the large event that Halloween has become today, they are generally not thought to be its primary historical origin.
Much more popular is the view that Halloween descended from a festival held by the Celts or, more specifically, the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland. This festival was called Samhain and had some components of a Festival of the Dead but was really used to mark the end of the harvest, the trading season and, more importantly, a new beginning. It indicated the beginning of the dark months, which would last until May before the light months and trading seasons began again.
During Samhain there would be a big celebratory feast where it was custom to set places for the dead and to remember departed ancestors. The livestock would also be slaughtered in preparation for winter, and it is perhaps these themes that have contributed to Halloween’s guise of horror. A greater affinity, however, can be observed between the modern holiday and the traditional Gaelic practice in Scotland.
In 16th century Scotland it was the custom for young men to dress up in masks and costumes during Samhain in an attempt to imitate the dead and the evil spirits and this was known as ‘guising’. Presumably this was an attempt to console or pacify any spirits in order to bring good luck for the coming winter. Turnips would also be hollowed out and carved with scary faces in order to scare away these spirits.
In the 19th century this practice was picked up by children, who would go from door to door in masks and costumes offering entertainment. They would receive food and coins in return for their efforts, which is clearly reminiscent of the modern day tradition of trick or treating and worryingly suggests that we’ve been encouraging prostitution in our youth for almost two hundred years.
As the rise of Christianity continued, Samhain fell on October 31st, the day before the Catholic All Saints Day, and the two celebrations converged. All Saints Day became known as Hallowmas, and Samhain as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween (a shortened version of ‘Hallows Evening’).
Some of these ancient traditions are still around today. In Mexico Novermber 1st (and 2nd) is celebrated as the national Day of the Dead (no, not an ode to the 1985 George Romero classic), a time to remember loved ones. Its origins can be found in the Aztecs, but also in Spanish history where it can, no doubt, be linked to the European festivals of the dead.
On this day Mexican citizens take to their cemeteries to be near the souls of their loved ones. They build shrines and give gifts of the deceased’s favourite food and drink whilst regaling stories from times gone by, remarkably similar to the Roman Feralia.
Whilst the peddlers of various schools of thought have argued for decades over which of these histories best represents the true origin of everybody’s favourite spooky holiday, it seems fair (and downright obvious) to suggest that all have played a role in moulding Halloween into the bastardised abominable child of good will, reverent remembering and reflective celebration that it has become.
It’s strange to think that Halloween has evolved into such a commercial enterprise that eclipses the day that follows it, where in so many cultures people come together to remember their beloved dead. Now a festival of horror, at one time it was the anticipation of a day of celebration, today a day that never comes. So on November 1st of this year I urge you to take a minute whilst you wipe the egg from your windows, to remember those that are no longer with us. Because it’s something we don’t make nearly enough time for.