Now, I'd be the last person to criticize this woman. She was totally sincere and believed that she was doing right by her family. And yet . . . in order to be perfectly consistent, she would have had to also eliminate Christmas and Easter celebrations from her household as well. Both of those Christian holidays have traditions associated with them that have pagan roots. But we don't worry too much about the fact that pre-Christian Europeans worshipped trees if we celebrate Christmas by decorating a tree. We don't refuse to call
So. Where to start? I guess with all the skeletons you see scattered about, or, as my son used to call them when he was little, “bone-face guys.” The human skeleton, especially the skull, has been used since medieval times to remind the living of their coming fate; the whole genre of artistic works using this image is called “memento mori,”--literally, “remembrance of death.” During the Black Plague a particularly vivid and popular depiction of this theme was the “dance of death,” with a skeleton leading a line of people from all walks of life, showing that no one was immune. Headstones and crypts were often adorned with skeletons and skulls, as well as with angels snuffing out candles. And it wasn't just pictures or carvings of skulls and bones that were popular; sometimes it was the real thing. My husband and I visited the Capuchin Crypt on a trip to Rome a number of years ago; the walls and ceiling are covered with bones and skulls of dead monks, all arranged in tasteful(?) patterns. Over the door is the motto: "We bones, lying here bare, await for yours." You can see how the skeletons would lead to all things cemetery-related: coffins, headstones, worms, spiders, decay, darkness . . . the list goes on.
All very well, you say, but how did this medieval obsession with death get us to today's holiday with all those adorable (pesky?) little trick-or-treaters? In order to figure out October 31, we have to start with November 1, or “All Saints' Day.” (Our gorgeous selection by Schubert honors that day, not Halloween. A later post is planned on this piece.) In the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations, All Saints honored those who had attained perfection in Heaven, known and unknown, named and unnamed, especially those who had been martyred for their faith. One version of this day's name is “All Hallows,” with “hallows” meaning “holy ones.” (So in the Lord's Prayer in the old King James, the phrase is “hallowed be Thy name,” meaning “may thy name be holy.”) The day before All Hallows was All Hallows Eve, which over time became shortened to “Halloween.” The night before All Hallows was often a time of vigils, as people thought about departed souls and meditated on their own mortality. So it was a time of great spiritual seriousness and significance. But why was this particular date chosen? Almost certainly because of various pagan traditions already in place for that time of year, traditions associated with the beginning of winter and the possibility of spirits or fairies being able to wander the earth. That great font of wisdom Wikipedia says, “The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night or day of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.” (The start of winter was seen as a “liminal” time. Isn't that a great word? It means a “threshold” time, a period of transition.)
Why the costumes and the treats? The idea of dressing up and therefore disguising oneself arose from the idea that it might be a good idea not to be recognized by wandering spirits of whatever kind, or the costumes might be seen as representations of those spirits. The “treats” can possibly be traced to the Roman Catholic tradition of “soul cakes” given out to poor children in return for their promise to pray for the dead. But there's another tradition, this one from Scotland, of young men going around with blackened, painted or masked faces and demanding food in exchange for reciting verses or singing songs. If they weren't welcomed they might threaten pranks, or “tricks.” It's all very complicated, as you can see. And don't get me started on jack-o-lanterns! In folklore they were the same thing as will-o'-the-wisps, the lights often seen over swamps or marshes, believed to be wandering spirits but actually some type of flammable gas, probably methane. It became popular for those same prankish young men mentioned above to carry lights, which also became known as jack-o-lanterns, contained in carved-out turnips. Yes, turnips. Must have been pretty big ones. (The Druids supposedly used turnip lights in their rituals.) Many cultures have used carved-out gourds to hold lights, with or without any kind of spooky significance. When the custom migrated to America along with European immigrants, pumpkins were substituted for the turnips. And a good thing too, I'd say. Pumpkins are much more attractive.
There's a lot more I could say about the panoply of ideas associated with Halloween, but the foregoing at least gives a sampling. I think we're free to pick and choose what we take seriously and what we don't. Perhaps I'll include a later post on the deeper significance of Tim Burton's movie “Nightmare Before Christmas,” from which our medley is taken. Anything's possible!