Halloween has nothing to do with the devil!
So, this year as we near the festive occasion, in hopes of trying to resurrect (and/or at least encourage) ensemble choices based upon the merits of what this festival is supposed to be about, I thought I'd give you all a crash course in the origins of what is officially termed, All Hallows Eve.
One of the oldest holidays still celebrated today, Halloween's history dates back well over 2000 years to the lands of Ireland, Britain, and Northern Europe, and to the ancient peoples known as the Druids. Originally a celebration of the lives (and of course, the spirits) of those who've passed onto a better place, October 31 was designated this honour because in traditional Pagan belief systems, it is the last day of the Celtic calendar marking summer's end.
It was brought to North America by Irish immigrants who were fleeing the Great Famine of 1846. Halloween, a now bastardized (and abbreviated version) of the affair's true title, “The Feast of Samhain” (pronounced sow-ween), began as nothing more than a harvest festival characterized by large bonfires (thought to represent the sun) into which the bones of slaughtered livestock (the meat, of which, was preserved for consumption over the winter months) were thrown. Based upon the highly superstitious notion that on the eve of the 31st, the boundary between the living world and “otherworld” temporarily broke down, the ancient Celts took part in these festivities in order to appease the dead spirits in an effort to ensure that they would have successful crops the following year, and that none of the members of their tribes would take ill over the colder months.
Though many of the conventional rituals associated with this Druid observation have obviously dissolved, been deemed satanic, or been altered beyond recognition over the years (largely due to the influence of Christianity); some customs, whether conscious or not, have remained. For example, costumes and masks were worn during the original harvest festival for two related reasons: 1) in an attempt to placate any evil spirits who may have made their presence known and 2) in an attempt to masquerade as one of the demonic hoard hopefully blending in, and therefore protecting oneself from any potential harm that could be brought forth. In Scotland specifically, young men commonly dressed in all white with completely blackened or veiled faces (Sound like our bed sheet ghost costume idea anyone?). Similarly, the idea of “trick-or-treating” is not far off from its roots.
Because the souls of the dead were believed to roam the streets and villages that night (some of which were believed to be of the evil variety), gifts and treats, usually in the form of food, were left out on doorsteps, again to dissuade them from doing harm. Over time, in parts of Britain and Ireland, Halloween came to be known as Mischief Night, an occasion for people to move freely among villages playing pranks without fear of reprisal from authorities. Today, home owners still provide children with treats to try and prevent them from playing tricks on their property (i.e. the all-too-common practises of toilet papering and egging).
Other legends trace the idea of “trick-or-treating” to a Medieval custom entitled, “souling” in which beggars and children would go door-to-door on Halloween (then called Hallowmas) singing and performing rituals for their deceased relatives in hopes of obtaining “soul cakes” from their fellow villagers. Simply square pieces of currant bread, it was purported that each cake eaten would allow a soul to be freed from purgatory guaranteeing safe and immediate passage into heaven. As for pumpkin carving? Again, this can be traced back to ancient times.
Because the head was considered the most powerful part of the body thought to contain one's spirit (and therefore, all of one's knowledge), the Druids carved the “heads” of turnips and rutabagas into lanterns, placed candles inside of them, and left them out on their front porches, once again, in an attempt to frighten off mischievous or malevolent entities. According to the Jeremiah Project's website, “it was said that if a demon were to encounter something as fiendish-looking as itself, it would run away in terror, thus sparing the houses' dwellers from their ravages.” When Halloween was transplanted to North America, because pumpkins, as a crop, were more accessible, we naturally began carving them instead.
Interestingly, the term “jack-o-lantern” is derived from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a miserly and greedy farmer known for his hard-drinking and gambling ways. According to the tale, good ole' Jack successfully tricked the devil into climbing a tree where he had prepared a trap in the shape of a cross. Obviously unhappy with being duped, in revenge, the devil placed a curse upon Jack in which he was condemned to wander the earth at night, for all of eternity, with nothing more than a turnip lantern to light his way.
And finally ghoulish home décor and orthodox costume choices. While North America's history of classic horror films has undoubtedly influenced both of the aforementioned topics, again we have the Pagans to thank for the initial inspiration. During “The Feast of Samhain,” it was common to furnish one's residence with bones and skeletons again to repel, as well as to pacify any undesirable supernatural presences that were lurking about.
Nocturnal animals, such as bats and owls, both now popular costume choices, actually used to be feared because the ancients postulated that said creatures were able to communicate with otherworldly beings (many people who believe in the presence of ghosts and apparitions still contest that this is true). As for witches, broomsticks, vampires, and black cats — you guessed it, they all have their basis in the acts of divination (ie: the practice of attempting to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge by occult or supernatural means) associated with the original harvest fest. Black cats, in particular, were once considered to possess the reincarnated spirits of the deceased. Hence, you probably wouldn't want to cross their path the wrong way. Halloween-oriented games like “bobbing for apples” used to be associated with magical rites of prophesying the future too.
So I'm sure some of you are wondering then, considering how much this celebration has altered since its inception, why do I personally give a damn about what you wear (or don't wear) this October 31? Well, I come from a family where Halloween was always a bigger deal than Christmas, and the last time I checked, the definition of “dressing up” meant putting MORE clothes ON, rather than stripping down to one's negligee. Further, there is a vast assortment of traditional costume choices (with and without modern spins) available at your disposal giving you absolutely no reason to wear nothing more than your skivvies. Holiday celebrations such as St. Patty's Day and New Year's Eve have already been reduced to nothing more than excuses to get drunk and act like sluts. So please, I along with all of the other All Hallows Eve purists, ask of you, this year, to pay respects to the phenomenal history of this holiday, and resist the urge to commemorate yet another “Whore-o-ween.”
While, discernibly, I am one who advocates for good clean fun, and homage to be paid where it is due, I will note that in recent times, we have invented a few new Halloween traditions of which I am a full supporter. To that effect, I unabashedly contest that no Halloween is complete without a viewing of M.J.'s epic musical mini-movie for Thriller. Happy Halloween my dears! Please be treats, rather than tricks.