-- Twelfth Night
'Tis Hallowe'en -- or as our modern-day Puritans (both progressive and traditional) would have it, "Fall Festival." Hrumph. Me, I've always been in favor of a thumping good Hallowe'en party, including those hosted by the church. (I also loved trick or treating as a kid, back before towns took to deciding when and how long it would last; it was very freeform back then, and could last several days).
Anyway, a friend posted an earnest seminary professor's charitable view of Hallowe'en online. In purporting to give the origin of the holiday, he said that "Hallowe'en" is simply another form of "All Hallows Eve" -- the day before All Saints Day. He then went on to talk about saints and the hope of resurrection, as if to imply that all the witches and devils and so on were a later corruption of a pure Christian holy day. Well, I appreciate his endorsement of dressing up and sharing candy. But his origin story is strangely censored. Yes, October 31 is All Hallows Eve. But the ghouls and goblins aren't a later accretion to the holiday, they were there from the beginning. Hallowe'en developed from several sources.
First, there is the pagan holiday of Samhain (pronounced SOW-as-in-cow-EN). This was one of the quarter days of the year, when the borders between the worlds were thought to be especially low, and the dead might walk among the living. People lit bonfires to watch through the night. They also drove their cattle through bonfires on either side to protect them from disease over the winter. So, element number 1, the dead walk; element number 2, bonfires.
Next, there is Old St. Martin's Day. St. Martin's feast day is November 11. In early medieval times, it inaugurated a period of fasting before Christmas, which was later shortened from 56 days to 40 days and thereafter called Advent. But in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that to reform the calendar, which had gotten out of sync with the seasons, the day after October 4 would be October 15. This meant that St. Martin's Day came ten days early, on what would have been All Saints. New St. Martin's Day remained on November 11, but to the people in those days, it seemed late. One might think that the "dead walking" theme might have gotten attached to Martinmas at this time, but the British ballad, The Wife of Usher's Well, which deals with three dead brothers returning to the home of their mother for a night, begins,
It fell about the Martinmass,If the ballad is older than Britain's switch of calendar, then it would seem Martinmas already was associated with the "dead walking" theme. In any case, between the lingering folk belief derived from the old pagan holiday and the folklore surrounding St. Martin's Day -- along with the Christian days of observance for All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2) -- one comes to a general ghoulish obsession here.
When nights are lang and mirk.
The carlin wife's three sons came hame,
And their hats were o' the birk.
Dressing up in costumes is part of the theme. If you can fool the devil, he can't take your soul to hell. But masking in general also fits the period of misrule that Hallowe'en is associated with. This part of the holiday actually derives from Christmas. The custom of wassailing -- groups of peasants traveling about the countryside, stopping at the homes of the local gentry, who were supposed to keep open house at this time -- led to a profusion of holiday eating and drinking at the end of the year. Agricultural work was largely done, and people had time to party. The harvest was in, so fruits were plentiful; the herds had been culled, so there was fresh meat to eat, for perhaps the only time in the year. As society changed, however, fewer people -- especially the middle classes in town -- wanted to give away free food and drink to whoever knocked at their doors in the night. They began to refuse the wassailers, who in their drunken state began to turn rowdy. Holiday misrule turned into vandalism. It was one of the Puritans' great complaints against Christmas. And New Year's Eve. The junior version became Hallowe'en's trick or treat game. "Give us the goodies or we soap your windows and t.p. your lawn" is simply wassailing by another name. So: costumes, check; trick or treating, check.
Finally, the whole holiday got soaked in the Romantic movement, which swept Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th Century. The medieval Witches' Sabbath, which nobody really believed in anymore, for that reason became intensely interesting. Mary Shelley started a trend in literature with Frankenstein. Our own sordid history of witch-hunting and the paranormal fantasies associated with it could be mined for holiday trimmings. And then merchandising got into it, with costumes for sale and candy made only to be given out at this time, and specials on TV. We thoroughly Americanized it.
All this doesn't mean that there aren't problems with Hallowe'en, but they are problems of the larger American society. Little kids in sexy costumes -- yes, that's not good, but that pathology was imported into the customs, it doesn't derive from them. Gory movies which glorify evil and madness -- that can be taken too far, too, but there is a long artistic tradition involved here.
In the meantime, there's partyin' to do. And while I yield to none in my devotion to Christ, I don't think ideological fussing about or being a killjoy honors him very much. Let's call it by its name* and enjoy it. Pass the hot cider.
*You'll notice I spell it "Hallowe'en," with an apostrophe, just like I was taught in Grade School.