Ah, Halloween is soon upon us! For many of us, the coming holiday invokes images of witches and cats, haystacks and pumpkins carved into scowling jack-o'-lanterns. Every year, the street in the old neighborhood that I used to live on in Franklin, Indiana was closed off so that hordes of children could swarm us come sundown on All Hallow's Eve. Most of the old Victorian mansions were converted into haunted houses, where our neighbors would jump out from behind cobwebby corners and try to scare us. Each house tried to out-spook the other, and most of the very small trick-or-treaters were in tears by the time they reached our well-lit porch, which had only smiling pumpkin faces, a haystack, and a few cobwebs to contend with. The event was so popular that we, the residents who had no choice but to at least tolerate it or get toilet-papered later that night, began receiving donations of bags and bags of candy from local businesses a week before the event. It was never enough; we had to drive out through the alley twice to buy emergency candy the first year we lived there.
Halloween is full of traditions, superstition and all things supernatural. This is the night when magic is high, and the dead may walk the earth, a holiday that allows us to confront our fears, to scare ourselves silly or feel brave for not jumping when things go boo! With creaky coffins on our porches, gardens made into graveyards and skeletons dancing in our windows, we explore the idea of death. Halloween is a wonderfully strange time of year, when many taboos become socially acceptable: we are allowed to dress as something we're not, run wild through the streets and threaten our neighbors with tricks if they do not come up with some treats.
Halloween traditions can be traced back 2000 years to the ancient Celts, although most cultures have festivals of some sort for the dead, usually associated with harvest. Today, many neo-pagans celebrate the holiday by recreating and reinventing the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-en"). This is the time when the veil between the worlds is thought to be very thin, and neo-pagans use this opportunity to attempt to communicate with ancestors (as well as the recently deceased). Modern Samhain festivities may consist of such activities as divination, past-life recall and harvest celebrations. There are copious misconceptions surrounding ancient (and modern) Samhain festivities; some of these come from other religious traditions in an attempt to demonize the holiday. There are probably as many versions of the origins of Halloween as there are Halloween costume possibilities.
Ray Bradbury's minor classic The Halloween Tree seeks out Halloween's origins in a whirlwind adventure (although aimed at children, this book is written as well as his other, "grown-up" novels). In this story, a group of eight boys are whisked away by a spirit on Halloween night not only to discover where their favorite holiday came from, but also to explore the concept of death by trying to save the life of a favorite member of their group. A spirit takes them back in time, and leads them forward through the many traditions associated with the holiday, beginning with "apemen" discovering fire and thus buying them time to think long hours of the night about death:
So, in the middle of autumn, everything dying, apemen turned in their sleep, remembered their own dead of the last year . . . They could drive away wolves, but not memories, not ghosts. So they held tight to their ribs, prayed for spring, watched the fire, thanked invisible gods for harvests of fruits and nuts . . . Halloween indeed! A million years ago, in a cave in autumn, with ghosts inside heads and the sun lost.
Bradbury, through the mouth of the boys' spirit-guide, Moundshroud, finds the theme of death combined with ancestor worship in Ancient Egyptian pyramid tombs and later in the Mexican celebration of El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). The boys delight in the tradition of tending graves and eating skull-shaped candy on El Dia de los Muertos, noting that their own town lacks such a group event to mark their favorite holiday. When the boys reach Europe, they are presented with death on a much grander scale, and Bradbury does not hesitate to challenge his young readers with the slow death of pagan religions when describing the Middle Ages:
"Ye gods and fishes, lad, every town has its resident witch. Every town hides some old Greek pagan priest, some Roman worshipper of tiny gods who ran up the roads, hid in culverts, sank in caves to escape the Christians! In every tiny village, boy, in every scrubby farm the old religions hide out . . . all the little lollygaggin' cults, all flavors and types, scramble to survive. See how they run, boys!"
Bradbury's trademark cynicism comes through again in a discussion of witches:
"What does the word 'witch' truly mean?"
"Why--" said Tom, and was stymied.
"Wits," said Moundshroud. "Intelligence. That's all it means. Knowledge. So any man, or woman, with half a brain and with inclinations toward learning had his wits about him, eh? And so, anyone too smart, who didn't watch out, was called--"
"A witch!" said everyone.
Although Bradbury doesn't pull his punches with his young readers, he does take liberties with some of the historical origins of Halloween. He embodies the festival of Samhain in a great Celtic god, a mistake often associated with the very same Christian fanatics that he disdained in his previous chapters. Bradbury's depection of Samhain is one of the most dramatically scary scenes in the book:
"Now lie low!" warned Moundshroud. "The Druid God of the Dead! Samhain! Fall!"
For a huge scythe came skimming down out of the sky. With its great razor edge it cut the wind. With its whistling side it sliced clouds. It beheaded trees. It razored along the cheek of the hill. It made a clean shave of wheat. In the air a whole blizzard of wheat fell. And with every whisk, every cut, every scythe, the sky was aswarm with cries and shrieks and screams.
The scythe hissed up.
The boys cowered.
The souls of the past year's dead then fall to the earth, changing into animals as they hit the harvested fields. Samhain beheads them, laughing at his games, while Druid priests are shown praying for the lost souls around a bonfire.
The Origins of Halloween
We can see where Bradbury gets his symbolism by looking more closely at Halloween's Celtic origins. Samhain is a festival, a holy day, not a god. It is one of the Major Sabbats (holy days) of the Celtic Druids, the others being Oimelc (in Feburary, signifying the approach of spring), Beltane (in May, also known as May Day, celebrating fertility and summer), and Lughnasadh (first harvest, in August). Loosely translated, Samhain means "end of summer" in Gaelic; it is a time to bring the crops in and slaughter those animals who wouldn't make it through the winter. It was a time to hold feasts to remember those who had passed away, to consult with the living spirits of those already dead.
Samhain was the Celtic New Year. Each family would extinguish their hearth fire and relight it from a great New Year bonfire lit by the Druid priests. The viscera of the freshly slaughtered animals were used to divine the future, to see what the New Year held in store. The festivities stretched into a three-day celebration, during which many taboos were lifted and folks celebrated in a way similar to Carnival in other cultures.
Although the old Celtic traditions are the basis for much of our modern Halloween symbolism, time and social circumstance have changed numerous things along the way. Christianity adapted many elements of the ancient festival in its symbology, creating a feast for the saints on All Saint's Day (also called All Hallow's Eve, which is where we get Hallowe'en) on November 1st. They later added All Soul's Day on November 2nd to honor the dead.
It is the Christian church hierarchy and their fear of intelligence and evil magic that created witches out of herbalists, midwives, healers, and fortune-tellers. Cats, whose propensity is to hunt or "slink around" at night, were widely feared by the Christian Church in the Middle Ages and were often associated with evil. Perhaps it was the herbalists' good sense to keep cats around so the rats didn't steal all the grain that caused these animals to become a favorite familiar for the fabled medieval witch.
Although pumpkins, being a New World plant, did not exist in Europe during this time, the tradition of carving turnips or beets into lanterns was widespread. Much later, when Irish immigrants came to North America, they discovered that pumpkins were much easier to hollow out than turnips, and the ease of carving led the way for more elaborate lanterns until we get today's jack-o'-lantern. The legend of Jack is a peculiar one, probably Irish and certainly Christian in origin. Jack was a well-known folkloric figure, a drunk and a trickster. As the story goes, Jack convinces Satan to climb a tree, and carves a cross into the trunk, trapping Satan in the upper branches. He makes a deal with Satan that he will let him down only if he promises never to tempt Jack again. Satan agrees, but later, when Jack dies, refuses to let him into hell. Not good enough for heaven, Jack is forced to wander the darkness with nothing but a burning ember to light his way. Thus, jack-o'-lanterns were invented.
It is a common misconception that ancient Celts dressed up in costume to confuse the devil or other evil spirits come to earth on Halloween night. Most sources attribute the tradition of costuming to the Carnival-like festivities. According to Philip Carr-Gomm in his work The Elements of the Druid Tradition:
Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November, was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organised, everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn was such a time . . . people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers' gates were unhinged and left in ditches, people's horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours' doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe'en.
Another early form of trick-or-treating dates from 9th century Europe, when beggars walked door to door begging for small "soul cakes" (baked especially for the occasion) on All Soul's Day. For every cake received while going "a-souling," a prayer was said for the dead relatives of the giver. It was thought that a soul's passage to heaven stayed in limbo for quite some time, and that all prayers, even those of a stranger, could ease a loved one's way into heaven. It was also bad form to appear stingy in front of all those visiting deceased relatives!
Mischief on Halloween is a time-honored tradition, as the wandering souls of the dead could be blamed for pranks. Although Halloween did not become popular in the United States until the 1800s, as Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their traditions with them, the custom of young men causing havoc on this night was in practice early in this country. Traditionally, young men were expected to blow off steam on this night by playing (hopefully) harmless pranks on their neighbors, while their more socially constrained female counterparts stayed home and played divination games. These games usually resulted in the revelation of a girl's future husband; a common tradition was to peel an apple without breaking the peel, and toss the peel over one's shoulder. The letters one could make out in the way the peel landed were said to be the future husband's initials.
The practice of going door-to-door for candy became widespread in the United States in the 1930s; this was a means of containing the night's traditional mischief and mayhem. Although this did not entirely squelch the toilet-papering of trees or egging of cars on this night, it did provide a new take on an old tradition that brings delight and sugar-highs to children throughout the country.
Halloween Traditions Today
Halloween has changed through the years, but in a way this change is unsurprising, as creativity is a fundamental aspect of the holiday. One of the great things about this holiday is the freedom we are given with its components. We can pick who we want to be for a night, and dress up to go trick-or-treating. Too old for trick-or-treating? Throw a Halloween costume party and give prizes for best costume. Even at the last minute, an adult can probably find a costume party at their local bar or club to go to. In the country you can take a hayride where you hear ghost stories from the driver who lets the horse lead the way until someone jumps screaming out of the trees to scare you. Halloween festivities are everywhere.
Most modern Halloween tales are willing to use the traditional Halloween elements to create new and wonderful legends, traditions and histories, but few bother to pay homage to the historic origins of Halloween. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling makes mention of a yearly Halloween Feast, but little is said of the history behind the holiday, outside of Hogwarts' school tradition. Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas takes place in a world where each town concentrates on one holiday. The main character, Jack, is a pumpkin-headed resident of Halloween-town who finds another holiday to incorporate the next town over, Christmas. Burton combines all the elements of Halloween into a town structure, creating a rich explanation for the holiday that has little to do with how it truly came about.
Halloween is a time when order is overturned in favor of creativity and chaos. With this excuse to run wild, artists and writers seize the opportunity and new Halloween legends are made, new traditions solidified. In the world of television any holiday is an excuse for a cartoon special; growing up, we searched for the Great Pumpkin with Charlie Brown. More recently, we watch the uncensored antics and repeated demises of our favorite characters on each new Simpsons Halloween Special. Divided into thirds, each segment is its own small tale, usually resulting in events that would destroy the normal order of the Simpsons universe and situation. The Simpsons Halloween Specials use everything from traditional ghosts and hauntings to aliens to create a sense of supernatural in their world.
A variety of demons and monsters from diverse folkloric traditions have been incorporated into our modern Halloween demonology. Aliens are certainly a more recent addition to the Halloween bestiary, but they seem to fit in very well. The urban legend of being abducted by aliens or of having aliens descend upon us here on earth fits in nicely on a night when our own supernatural occurrences are honored, when our own spirits and spooks walk the earth. Other modern characters have been added: Frankenstein's monster was naturally adapted from Mary Shelley's book; mummies came about with the modern interest Egyptology; psycho killers add spice to Halloween horror movies, and werewolves are a remnant of the berserkers of Scandinavia. Vampires, who have become major players in our cast of Halloween characters, come from Eastern European folklore.
The popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no stranger to the occult. The show's premise is that every generation a young girl is chosen as a "slayer" of vampires and demons, and is given special, mystical powers to aid her in this quest. In the episode "Fear, Itself," a Halloween fraternity party goes astray when a fear demon is accidentally freed because of an ill-chosen symbol painted on the floor as a Halloween decoration by one of the brothers. This demon feeds upon the worst fears of the costumed guests, shutting them in with what they fear the most. The main characters or "scooby gang" have quite a time of battling against their own worst nightmares, but at the end we finally see the demon that Buffy must kill -- all 5 inches of him. Xander, one of the "scoobies," cannot resist taunting the puny demon that caused him so much distress:
Xander: "Who's the little fear demon? Come on, who's the little fear demon?"
Giles: "Don't taunt the fear demon."
Xander: "Why? Can he hurt me?"
Giles: "No, it's just . . . tacky."
This comic ending comes with a sigh of relief -- it is good to see that what we fear the most is probably not as bad as it seems. Even though their mentor, Giles, reminds Xander that he should have a healthy respect for fear, he gently nudges Buffy to proceed with the slaying of the fear demon. The last scene we see is from the demon's perspective: Buffy's foot slams down, squashing the fear demon flat.
But never fear; it is the nature of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention Halloween, itself, to come back next year with new and more frightening demons, goblins and ghouls to haunt us. Every year we create new stories from old material in honor of this spookiest of all holidays.
Heather Shaw is the Bookstore Manager for Strange Horizons.
A discussion of Halloween from the neo-pagan perspective.
An in-depth look at the meaning of Samhain.
More on Samhain, including recipes, stories, poetry, and tips on holding your own Samhain ritual.
A guide to ancient as well as modern Druid beliefs.
An informative overview of holidays in the pagan tradition.
A wonderful guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Astounding Costume Ideas.
An excellent database of Halloween activities across America.
A Frightbytes.com, a virtual haunted house, choose-your-own-adventure style.
A witchy selection of Pagan Postcards.