(Daven’s Notes: This is part two of this excellent essay. Please read part one by clicking here.)
The Real Origins of Halloween
Page #2 of 2
Version 3.7, copyright 1997, 2000 C.E.
by Isaac Bonewits
Trick or Treat!!!
Where does this custom come from? Is it really ancient, a few centuries old, or relatively modern? Let’s look at the evidence:
Kevin Danaher, in his remarkable book The Year in Ireland, has a long discussion of the traditional Irish celebrations of this festival. In one section on “Hallow-E’en Guisers,” he says:
A familiar sight in Dublin city on and about October 31 is that of small groups of children, arrayed in grotesque garments and with faces masked or painted, accosting the passers-by or knocking on house doors with the request: “Help the Hallow E’en party! Any apples or nuts?” in the expectation of being given small presents; this, incidentally, is all the more remarkable as it is the only folk custom of the kind which has survived in the metropolis.
A couple of generations ago, in parts of Dublin and in other areas of Ireland, the groups would have consisted of young men and grown boys, who often travelled considerable distances in their quest, with consequently greater reward. The proceeds were usually expended on a ‘Hallow E’en party,” with music, dancing, feasting and so on, at some chosen house, and not merely consumed on the spot as with the children nowadays…
Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, ii, 370, states that in parts of Count Waterford:’Hallow E’en is called oidhche na h-aimléise, “The night of mischief or con”. It was a custom in the county — it survives still in places — for the “boys” to assemble in gangs, and, headed by a few horn-blowers who were always selected for their strength of lungs, to visit all the farmers’ houses in the district and levy a sort of blackmail, good humouredly asked for, and as cheerfully given. They afterward met at some rendezvous, and in merry revelry celebrated the festival of Samhain in their own way. When the distant winding of the horns was heard, the bean a’ tigh [woman of the house] prepared for their reception, and got ready the money or builín (white bread) to be handed to them through the half-opened door. Whoever heard the wild scurry of their rush through a farm-yard to the kitchen-door — there was always a race amongst them to get possession of the latch — will not question the propriety of the word aimiléis [mischief] applied to their proceedings. The leader of the band chaunted a sort of recitative in Gaelic, intoning it with a strong nasal twang to conceal his identity, in which the good-wife was called upon to do honour to Samhain…”
A contributor to An Claidheamh Soluis, 15 Dec. 1906, 5, gives a example of these verses, from Ring, County Waterford:
‘Anocht Oidhche Shamhna, a Mhongo Mango. Sop is na fuinneogaibh; dúntar na díirse. Eirigh id’ shuidhe, a bhean an tighe. Téirigh siar go banamhail, tar aniar go flaitheamhail. Tabhair leat ceapaire aráin agus ime ar dhath do leacain fhéin; a mbeidh léim ghirrfiadh dhe aoirde ann ages ciscéim choiligh dhe im air. Tabhair chugham peigín de bhainne righin, mín, milis a mbeidh leawhnach ‘n-a chosa agus uachtar ‘n-a mhullaigh; go mbeidh sé ag imtheacht ‘n-a chnocaibh agus ag teacht Ôn-a shléibhtibh, agus badh ó leat go dtachtfadh sé mé, agus mo chreach fhada níor bhaoghal dom.’
‘(“Oh Mongo Mango, Hallow E’en tonight. Straw in the windows and close the doors. Rise up housewife, go inside womanly, return hospitably, bring with you a slice of bread and butter the colour of your own cheek, as high as a hare’s jump with a cock’s step of butter on it. Bring us a measure of thick fine sweet milk, with new milk below and cream above, coming in hills and going in mountains; you may think it would choke me, but, alas! I am in no danger.”)’
Wow, that chant sure sounds Satanic, doesn’t it?
As I mentioned before, because it was an “in-between” kind of holiday, spirits (nice or nasty), ancestors (ditto), or mortals (ditto?) were thought to be more easily able to pass from This World to the Other World and vice versa. It was also a perfect time for divination or “fortune telling” (Danaher talks about all of this at great length). While some monotheists may consider either or both of these activities to be “Evil”, most religions in human history have considered them perfectly normal.
Before and after the arrival of Christianity, early November was when people in Western and Northern Europe finished the last of their harvesting, butchered their excess stock (so the surviving animals would have enough food to make it through the winter), and held great feasts. They invited their ancestors to join them, decorated family graves, and told ghost stories — all of which may strike some monotheists today as spiritually erroneous, but which hardly seems “evil” — and many modern polytheists do much the same. So where does “trick or treating” come in?
According to Tad Tuleja’s essay, “Trick or Treat: Pre-Texts and Contexts,” in Santino’s previously mentioned anthology, Halloween, modern trick or treating (primarily children going door-to-door, begging for candy) began fairly recently, as a blend of several ancient and modern influences. I’m mixing Tuleja’s material here with my own insights, see his essay for details of his opinions, which I’ll mark with italics to separate from mine:
(1) At various times and places in the Middle Ages, customs developed of beggers, then children, asking for “soul cakes” on All Souls Day.
(2) At some other Medieval times and places, costumed holiday parading, singing and dancing at May Day, Halloween, and Yule (with different themes, of course, though sometimes with similar characters, such as the “Hobby Horse”) became popular in Ireland and the British Isles. Originally these costumed celebrants were adults and older teens, who would go from house to house (as Danaher describes above) demanding beer and munchies in exchange for their performances, which mixed Pagan and Christian symbols and themes. While many Neopagans may think these folk customs go all the way back to Paleopagan times, the evidence to support that is thin.
(3) To the medieval householders, of course, being thought stingy (especially in front of the visiting ancestors and faery folk at Halloween) would be very bad luck, as it would violate the ancient laws of hospitality. Perhaps there were some inebriated paraders who might have decided to come back later in the night and play tricks upon those who hadn’t rewarded them properly, but any references to such are fairly modern.
(4) In 1605 c.e., Guy Fawkes’ abortive effort to blow up the British Parliament on November 5th, led to the creation of “Guy Fawkes Day,” celebrated by the burning of effigies of Fawkes in bonfires and children dressing in rags to beg for money for fireworks. As the decades rolled by, this became thoroughly entwined with Halloween celebrations and customs. This is not surprising, considering that bonfires were a central part of the old Samhain/Halloween tradition, and that Nov. 5th was actually closer to the astrological date for Samhain than the 1st was!
(5) In 19th Century America, rural immigrants from Ireland and Scotland kept gender-specific Halloween customs from their homelands: girls stayed indoors and did divination games, while the boys roamed outdoors engaging in almost equally ritualized pranks, which their elders “blamed” on the spirits being abroad that night.
(6) Also in mid-19th Century New York, children called “ragamuffins” would dress in costumes and beg for pennies from adults on Thanksgiving Day.
(7) Things got nastier with increased urbanization and poverty in the 1930’s. Adults began casting about for ways to control the previously harmless but now increasingly expensive and dangerous vandalism of the “boys.” Towns and cities began organizing “safe” Halloween events and householders began giving out bribes to the neighborhood kids as a way to distract them away from their previous anarchy. The ragamuffins disappeared or switched their date to Halloween. The term “trick or treat,” finally appears in print around 1939!
Pranks became even nastier in the 1980’s, with widespread poverty existing side-by-side with obscene greed. I find myself agreeing with the words of one of my wisest correspondents, a student Christian, who echoed those 1930’s civic leaders when he suggested, “if Halloween is to survive as a non-controversial institution, we need to first clean up the simple and obvious criminal element. Without that, many so-called-Christians [opposed to Halloween] would lose their leg to stand on.” Unfortunately, as criminologists, military recruiters and historians know, the most dangerous animals on our planet are unemployed teenaged males. Bored kids in a violence saturated culture slip all too easily from harmless “decoration” of their neighbors’ houses with shaving cream and toilet paper to serious vandalism and assaults. Blaming either Neopagans or Halloween for this is rather like blaming patriots or the Fourth of July for the many firecracker injuries that happen every year (and which are also combatted by publicly sponsored events).
By the mid- 20th century in Ireland and Britain, it seem only the smaller children would dress up and parade to the neighbors’ houses, do little performances, then ask for a reward. American kids seem to remember this with their chants of “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg,” and other classic tunes done for no reason other than because “it’s traditional.”
All this is a far cry from the horrific images “conjured” by Satanic Panickers, (as in this Chick Publications tract “The Trick”). Rather than an ancient Satanic plot to kill or corrupt children, American trick-or-treating (NOT Halloween itself!) is a modern custom invented by town councils, schoolboards and parents in the 1930’s to keep their kids OUT of trouble.
To a great extent, the costumes worn by modern trick-or-treaters represent, as they might have in older times, an effort to entertain, amuse and/or scare the neighbors, and to compete a bit with others in beauty, ugliness, humor, scariness, and costuming skill.
One Christian mother told me that even though she now understands more about the origins of Halloween, she is still reluctant to let her kids celebrate it, as she put it, because, “People today are totally unconcerned and disrespectful of the value of life and safety of others. Regardless of personal religion, selfishness and cruelty have no place in society, but has been allowed all the same. (Yes, that includes the Fundamentalist crowds).” Perhaps this is why the other 1930’s parental solution of supervised parties has continued to grow in popularity even as after-dark trick-or-treating has dwindled.
One rather wise Christian teenager told me:
Probably the thing that makes Halloween so different is not that people act far differently (some minor increases in vandalism and rabble-rousing), but rather that it is so simply accepted. What makes my peers decide to egg somebody’s house on Halloween rather than another day? The fact that it is accepted and almost anticipated. And so they join the bandwagon, fearing less repercussions because of the “viable” defense, “Hey, anybody could’ve done it – all those weirdos out and everything.” How many Satanists go trick-or-treating vs. the number of high school kids smashing pumpkins? Common sense speaks for itself. I would personally say if Halloween is to survive as a non-controversial institution, we need to first clean up the simple and obvious criminal element. Without that, many so-called Christians would lose their leg to stand on. However, and I hope you agree, we (meaning the Biblically-based Chrisitian community vs. subscribers to other faiths) could discuss the underlying spiritual issues without the argument of increased criminal activity (supposedly incited by Pagans) twisting the issue. Besides it’s easier to discuss things coherently when your house isn’t TPed in the dark and you’re looking for a scapegoat.
Is Halloween an appropriate holiday for Christians to celebrate? I suppose that depends on which kind of Christians are asking. Conservative Christians, who often place far more emphasis on (the parts they like of) the “Old Testament,” than they do the “New Testament,” can simply point to the genuinely traditional Halloween customs of divination and communication with otherworldly spirits and dead ancestors, and say these activities are forbidden to them. Liberal Christians, who usually pay more attention to the “New” than the “Old Testament,” may come to different conclusions. Moderate Christians, of course, will be caught in the middle as usual. But no one, regardless of religion, should need to accept or pass along lies and errors about Halloween, or indeed any other religious topic, in order to make a spiritual decision for him- or herself, or their children — the only folks for whom they have the right to make that decision.
What was Halloween in America like forty years ago? Read Phaedra Oorbeck’s Halloween and Me essay on this website for some heartwarming memories.
Why Bother to save Halloween? is an essay by Richard Seltzer, which has yet more reasons why it’s important to keep the custom of trick or treating alive:
Halloween is a time that reconfirms the social bond of a neighborhood (particularly the bond between strangers of different generations) by a ritual act of trade. Children go to lengths to dress up and overcome their fear of strangers in exchange for candy. And adults buy the candy and overcome their distrust of strange children in exchange for the pleasure of seeing their wild outfits and vicariously reliving their own adventures as children.
In other words, the true value and importance of Halloween comes not from parading in costumes in front of close friends and family, but from this interchange with strangers, exorcising our fears of strangers, reaffirming our social bond with the people of the neighborhood who we rarely, if ever, see the rest of the year.
What About those Evil Symbols?
Several correspondents have said, “if the holiday isn’t evil why are there so many evil images associated with it,” such as ghosts, skeletons, black cats, ugly witches, demons, monsters, and Jack O’Lanterns? The answer, of course, is that most of these images aren’t evil, and the ones that are were added by people opposed to the holiday.
Ghosts have always made perfect sense, for Samhain was the festival where the Gates Between the Worlds were open wide and departed friends and family could cross over in either direction. As I mentioned earlier, people invited their ancestors to join them in celebration. The only ones who would cower in fear would be people who had wronged someone dead and who therefore feared retribution of some sort. The often repeated folk tale that the dead roamed the earth after dying until the next Samhain, when they could then pass over to the afterlife, makes no sense in either Celtic Paleopagan or Medieval Christian beliefs, so is probably fairly modern.
Samhain was the time of year when the herds were culled. That means that farmers and herders killed the old, sick or weak animals, as well as others they didn’t think would make it through the winter with that year’s available food. Prior to the last few centuries in the West, most people lived with death as a common part of life, especially since most of them lived on farms. Samhain became imbued with symbolism of the death of the old year and the rebirth of the new year. So skeletons and skulls joined the ghosts as symbols of the holiday. Again, there’s nothing evil here, at least to the innocent in heart. Indeed, in Mexico, where the holiday is known as Los dias de los Muertos, or “The Days of the Dead,” (combining All Saints Day with All Souls Day) skeleton and skull toys and even candies are made and enjoyed by the millions, many by and for devout Roman Catholics.
Medieval Christians feared cats, for reasons as yet unclear, and especially feared the black ones who could sneak “invisibly” around at night. It’s ironic that they feared cats so much that they killed tens of thousands of them, leaving their granaries open to rats and mice, no doubt causing much food to be wasted, and leaving Europe as a whole open to the Black Plague, which was carried by the fleas on those rats and mice. Unfortunately, the millions of human deaths caused by the Black Plague were later blamed on the Gothic (Satanic) Witches the Church invented, then murdered. Cats, as “evil” animals, became associated with the “evil” witches.
Witches as figures of unalloyed evil were invented by the medieval Church. Paleopagan witches were simply local herbalists, midwives, healers and fortune tellers, who might sometimes be suspected of doing evil magic (see my essay elsewhere on this site for details). As diviners, they may well have been consulted on the best divination night of the year, but I know of no formal association of witches with Samhain until the late Middle Ages.
As the Church tried harder and harder to make people abandon their Paleopagan customs for the new Christian ones, Samhain became a prime target. The Church began to say that demons were abroad with the dead, and that the fairy folk were all monsters who would kill the unwary. When Gothic Witchcraft was invented, the “Devil-Worshipping Witch” became the newest monster to add to the others. The green skin was a touch the Wizard of Oz movie added to the “evil old hag” version of the Gothic Witch. Halloween became a holiday in modern times for which half the fun was being scared out of one’s wits.
Modern fiction added new monsters to the American mix, including vampires (previously known mostly in Eastern Europe), werewolves (a remnant of the berserkers of Scandinavia), mummies (after modern Egyptology started), and various psychopathic killers and ghouls. These are not images anyone actually needs to perpetuate, but the teens certainly enjoy them.
Jack O’Lanterns, as mentioned earlier, became popular as house decorations in the USA after immigrant Irish discovered how much easier pumpkins were to carve than American turnips, unleashing what has turned into quite an art form in the last decade or so. They certainly add a spooky touch, especially when the glowing faces appear from the darkness.
Most psychiatrists and psychologists seem to agree that Halloween’s emphatic celebration of death serves to bring out our culture’s suppressed feelings about the topic, and this can be a healthy experience for both children and adults. I strongly suspect that the primary reason for American culture’s aversion to thinking about death and dying is that most modern Westerners don’t really believe the mainstream monotheistic religions’ doctrines on the topic, or if they do, they fear eternal punishment more than they expect an eternal reward. The Paleopagan/Neopagan views that death is a transition to a new state of being where things go on much as they have here, at least until one reincarnates, is much less frightening (at least for those having a relatively happy life now), and makes the spirits of the dead unthreatening.
Certainly, Halloween gives parents an opportunity to discuss their beliefs and attitudes about death with their children, one hopes with no recent close death to cloud the issues, and to soothe whatever fears their children may have.
How NeoPagans will Celebrate
Reporters are always asking us what we Neopagans “do” for Halloween. Well, usually we take our kids around our neighborhoods trick or treating, as cautiously as any other parents. Those who stay at home may hand out commercially packaged candy to those who visit our houses. Over the weekend, our circles of friends will have rituals that might include “dumb suppers” (silent, saltless meals) for the Ancestors, or separate “kid circles” and costume parties for the children in our community — and we always wind up with at least as many kids as we started out with! Most of us will do some divination, give honor to those who have died in the past year, play traditional games, and meditate on our own mortality.
In 1997 c.e., something new was added to our Neopagan Samhain traditions in the United States. Hundreds of us met in Washington, DC (as well as in other cities) wearing green clothes, bringing canned goods donations for the local food banks, cleaning up local parks and monuments, and just being visible as part of the American religious landscape. We brought thousands of flowers (both silk and real), to represent those Neopagans who could not join us because of travel or job scheduling difficulties, or because they rightfully fear Satanic Panicker persecution in their home towns should their names or faces become publically known as belonging to a minority belief system. The flowers were later taken to local hospitals and nursing homes.
This was a leaderless event, called Blessed Be and Meet Me in DC, staged by an informal coalition of DC-area Neopagans and participated in by Neopagans at simultaneous “mirror events” in other cities. I was there, and was delighted to see, despite death threats and promises of violence from Satanic Panickers, a couple of hundred Neopagans at the Jefferson and Lincoln monuments, as well as members of other liberal and moderate religious communities, as well as some representatives of the mainstream media. Unfortunately, since nobody got shot and we weren’t actually doing anything lurid, we didn’t get nearly the coverage we had hoped for. The event was repeated in 1999 and 2000, and the mainstream media has started to pay more attention. To find out how you can participate in future events, visit the BBMMDC Website for details, and come back often for updates! For stories of the BBMMDC 2000 celebrations, which were held on October 13-15, visit The Wiccan-Pagan Times website.
So what do we American Neopagans really do on Samhain? No blood drinking, no baby sacrifices, no orgies — just good, clean, all-American festivity with some thoughtful additions appropriate to the season and a few gentle political and social statements about our right to exist and our presence in the vibrant fabric of American religious pluralism. I know that disappoints the Satanic Panickers — especially the ones who run around on the 31st of October looking for Occult Crimes In Progress, or who try to crash any Neopagan rituals they can find that night. (Note for law-and-order types: it’s a violation of state and federal laws to disrupt any religious ritual in progress unless there’s a clear felony happening — which you won’t find at our rites.)
Spiritual Warriors or Curse Casters?
Some of the Satanic Panickers (as well as other conservative Christians) spend Halloween engaging in what they call “spiritual warfare” against local Neopagans. While for some Christians this phrase (at least on Halloween) refers only to saying prayers for “peace, protection, safety and for God’s influence,” as one correspondent told me, to the Satanic Panickers, spiritual warfare means saying “imprecatory psalms” and praying for the destruction of all of us folks they think are Evil Incarnate. Oddly enough, when members of competing religions do such things, the process is labled “casting curses” or “evil black magic” by these very same folks!
Don’t believe it? Here’s a quote (minus the all-caps shouting) from an email I received on October 19th, 1998 c.e.:
“…just keep your mouth shut! and don’t ever try again to make those web pages! … You better erase your web pages as soon as possible otherwise you will be sick to death within two month. Two month! Remember this!”
Since I’m still alive a year later, we know that this one illiterate “spiritual warrior” was sorely disappointed. Of course, so was the one who promised to pray me to death the year before… I get a half a dozen emails every year now, challenging me to battle them on the astral plane and promising to destroy me and all other Neopagans, Druids, Witches, etc., in the name of and by the power of their God. Funny how there’s more of us every year, despite the “spiritual warriors” and their supposedly inevitable victory over all of us Heathen.
Witches, Druids and other Neopagans are not responsible for the Satanic Panickers’ bizarre fantasies of who and what they think we are. We will no longer let them get away with commiting or advocating hate crimes against us — and then whining that they’re the ones being persecuted because we’re allowed to exist and to celebrate our own holy days according to our own beliefs.
Other Christians may join the mother who told me, “I choose to believe the Bible principals verbatim, but I do not agree with everything my church leaders tell me as addendums. I require solid evidence.” I hope this essay has provided just that kind of evidence.
For everyone else, as one Pagan couple put it a couple of years ago. “Have wonderful and thoughtful memories, and plan a fantastic and responsible future, as our year ends and the New Year starts.”
Happy Halloween Everyone!!!
|Copyright © 1974, 1999 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained and this notice is included. If you would like to be on the author’s personal mailing/phone list for upcoming publications, lectures, song albums, and appearances, send your snailmail and/or your email address to him at PO Box 1021, Nyack, NY, USA 10960-1021 or via email to “firstname.lastname@example.org” .|
(P. E.) Isaac Bonewits, Adr.Em./ADF
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Copyright © 1999 c.e., Isaac Bonewits
Most recently updated: October 24, 1999 c.e.
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