Old World origins of The Spooky Holiday Trifecta, Oct. 31 – Nov. 2

Halloween (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2), better known to those of Hispanic extraction as the Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos; more on that in our next post).  This triduum or three-day holy observance was established in the 8th century A.D. and even has a formal name:  Hallowmas!  This has to be the highlight of the Goth calendar and a favorite time of year for the supernaturally and/or paranormally inclined.  But where did these holidays, i.e., holy days, come from?

Well.  A lot of traditions associated with these dead-season holidays originate in attempts to co-opt pagan practices and re-characterize them for Christian converts, so that it was easier to convert people in the first place and there was no backsliding into paganism afterwards.  Heck, it actually started with converting the ancient Romans (the emperor Constantine had a hand in that when he made Christianity the new state religion), and it never really stopped until most of the pagan religions were gone or converted.  Don’t even get us started about Druids, Visigoths or Vikings and how some of their traditions got sandwiched into other holiday celebrations.  For now, let’s just stick to the Big Three in Autumn.

Halloween graveyard outside Lutheran church, Röke, Sweden - blog

Halloween, when the veil between the living world and the spiritual one is supposedly at its thinnest, draws on many traditions that date back a millennium or more.  Halloween day has its roots in the ritual traditions of Samhain, a pagan Celtic festival celebrating the harvest season.  Back then, a successful harvest literally meant the difference between life and death during the winter months.  You can read a wonderful post by Irish photographer and folklorist Ed Mooney on the Samhain tradition of the Dumb Supper, yet another way of honoring the dead.

In Roman times, May 13 was the culmination of Lemuria, a day when the living placated the dead to prevent being haunted by them.  Milk was poured on graves and cakes were left as an offering.  A forerunner of trick or treating, this is very similar to the Hispanic traditions of the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), when families bring food and beverages to the graves of their loved ones and share them with the living.  Some families even picnic at the gravesides of their dead relatives.

As Christianity spread, the Church moved Lemuria to November 1st, and renamed it All Saints’ Day, aka All Hallows’ Day.  November 1st was chosen steal the thunder away from the pagan harvest festival of Samhain, as the Church wanted to convert pagans to Christianity.  Oct. 31st became known as All Hallows’ Eve or Evening,  which eventually was shortened to Halloween.  To further draw pagans, November 2nd was designated All Souls’ Day to honor all the dearly departed, not just saints.

Halloween_India - Indian Christian women decorating graves on All Hallows Eve

By the Middle Ages, Christians were being instructed to spend All Souls’ Day praying for souls suffering in purgatory, the place between heaven and hell and better known as the waiting room to heaven.  According to the Church, if enough prayers were offered, souls would fly up to heaven.  This led to the medieval custom of “soaling,” when children would go door to door begging for soal cakes – spiced cakes filled with raisins – in return for promising to pray for souls trapped in purgatory.

By the 1920s and ’30s in the U.S., Halloween had taken on a malevolent aspect:  pranks or “tricks” by young adults led to dangerous vandalism.  This actually had its origins in Mischief Night, the earliest mention of which was at St. John’s College, Oxford in 1790.  Mischief Night or Devil’s Night still survives to some degree in more or less harmless tricks such as toilet-papering foliage or property, throwing eggs at car windshields or buildings, soaping or throwing mud at windows, and so on.  To discourage this trend toward mischief and damage, cities and towns began putting on Halloween festivals, emphasizing harvest time and sharing, encouraging – and in a sense reviving – what has become the more innocent pastime of trick or treating by children (and really only treating for children).

Trick or Treat for UNICEF is now a standard part of Halloween in the U.S.

Trick or Treat for UNICEF is now a standard part of Halloween in the U.S.

During the 20th century, this also came to include Trick of Treat for UNICEF (collecting funds for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Foundation); what began as a local phenomenon in Philadelphia in 1950 went national in 1952.  It is now a means to encourage generosity of spirit and remind children to make an effort for others in the world less fortunate than themselves while collecting their own treats.  Not a bad idea.

One thing that is common to all three feast days is grave visitation and the clean-up and decoration of graves.  Family members show up in graveyards to light candles, lay flowers and pray for the souls of the dearly departed.  To some extent, this is a form of ancestor veneration.  To that extent, some of the traditions of this season tend to spill over from one day to another.  Halloween, however, has some traditions of its own.  Now for some specifics on that.

Black Cats and Cauldrons:  Cats were often the companions of older women, and they hung around the broomsticks and cauldrons, among other things, simply because they were there.  In Western civilization, black was considered the color of death, evil and everything dirty or contaminated, just as white was seen as the sign of purity and innocence (whereas in the Orient, for example, white is the color of mourning; it’s a cultural thing).  Black cats were therefore considered at least unlucky, just because of their color, and at most evil or associated with evil – especially if owned by a clever woman.  Add to that the fact that cats can creep on you silently, seem to be able to get in everywhere, and are often seen as aloof and unfriendly (well, more so than dogs, generally), and the black ones just got a worse rap than their other-colored litter mates.  Thus, they were accused of being the familiars of witches and sorcerers.  Mind you, every home had a cauldron right up through almost the end of the 19th century – that is, until wooden stoves and coal-fed kitchen stoves came into wide use – but ‘witches,’ of course, must be making a black magic potion in their cauldrons, and so their poor black kitties got double-damned by association.

black cat in moonlight

Ghosts/sheets:  Associating ghosts with sheets, or the white translucent look, has its origins in the deceased being wrapped in white death shrouds.

Jack-o’-lanterns:  The staple and face of Halloween in much of the English-speaking world.  For more on this, see our recent post on the tale of Stinky Jack, the “father” figure of the jack-o’-lantern.  It is in America that the jack-o’-lantern went from being carved out of a turnip to being carved out of a pumpkin.  By the way, did you know that Illinois, nicknamed The Land of Lincoln (speaking of which, see this post about Mr. Lincoln), could also be called The Land of The Great Pumpkin?  According to triviatoday.com, 95 percent of the pumpkins in the U.S. are grown in Illinois – and 80 percent are grown within a 90-mile radius of Peoria.  According to the History Channel’s program “The Real Story of Halloween,” the face traditionally carved into a jack-o’-lantern supposedly resembles the face of a dead body in rigor mortis.

Halloween jack-o-lantern 1

Trick or Treat:  Trick or treating as we know it has only been around for about a century, at most.  Before that in the British Isles, poor children would beg for soal cakes after the harvest, promising to pray for the souls of the dead, though this sometimes happened during Advent (before Christmas) rather than Halloween, in which case these alms were solicited in the name of the Christ child (see our post on the Spooky Song of the Week “A-Soalin’,” a traditional carol sung by the U.S. folk-music trio Peter, Paul and Mary).

Halloween costumes and guising/masquerades:  The practice of dressing up in costume is another one of those things that may have originated with Samhain.  Originally, costumes were supposed to represent supernatural or folkloric beings, mostly nasty or scary, but by the 1930s figures from literature and popular culture were increasingly worn.  The practice of guising or masquerading seems to have developed together with begging for alms, i.e., trick or treating.  Children would show up in fantastic costumes begging for alms and sing a song or reciting verse.  Certainly it was easier to retaliate with a trick when masked if they didn’t like the treat they got or didn’t get one at all.

Witches’ Broomsticks:  One legend has it that these magical sticks were disguised by witches as household “appliances” so that their owners could hide their penchant for black magic and avoid being found out.  Author Lisa Morton says people who believed certain women were witches just arbitrarily decided that there must be something sinister lurking in things like brooms and cauldrons. Broomsticks have made a big, positive comeback, however, since the Harry Potter books became a hit. They’re not just for sweeping anymore. Here are a few other legends of the origin of witches’ brooms:  http://news.yahoo.com/bewitching-history-why-witches-ride-broomsticks-113036897.html

Harry Potter

Harry Potter on a broomstick playing Quidditch


Witches:  According the “Real Story of Halloween,” Lisa Morton, author of The Halloween Encyclopedia, Second Edition, writes that witches were likely older women who lived alone during the Middle Ages and were healers with a knowledge of useful medicinal herbs, midwifery and/or rudimentary medicine.  Their well-intentioned efforts became suspicious to those always looking for the worst in others, and their good deeds were labeled as the practice of black magic or being in league with the Devil.  The stereotypical witch’s peaked hat is actually what a variation on a medieval country’s woman’s headgear.

However, there is an even darker history behind accusations of witchcraft.  Such charges were, first of all, largely misogynistic:  they were intended to demonize intelligent women with a degree of knowledge that had nothing to do with traditional wifely duties and terrorize other women into submission to men.  Because of their skills, these knowledgeable women often had stature within their communities – status that was occasionally almost equal to that of local men.  This was something that could not be tolerated by men in authority in those rabidly patriarchal societies and communities.  Women with knowledge were women with power who, just by their very existence, posed a challenge to the male order.  For this, it was decided they had to die.

Eva Green

The witch Serafina Pekkala (actress Eva Green) flying in the film The Golden Compass


Burning those women deemed as witches at the stake began with the Catholic Church but was later sanctioned and practiced by other Christian denominations.  “Witches” were considered heretics by definition, and heretics were burned or drowned.  Between the Dark Ages and the end of the 18th century, the Catholic Church alone may have burned as many as a million women for supposedly being witches.  Think of the Salem witch trials times thousands.  The frenzy in witch burning was such that in some villages, once the accusations and burning began virtually no women remained afterwards (note that there were far, far fewer men burned as sorcerers; think that’s a coincidence?  Really??).

Yes, Virginia, misogyny can kill great multitudes – and did, to the shame of all churchmen and churches that allowed, if not encouraged, such bloodthirsty, barbarous murder.  Although some critics claim that witches were burned or otherwise killed by the millions, current scholars put their worldwide estimates at between 40,000 and 100,000 dead in all, with 75 to 80 percent of those being women.  What’s worse is that while the Catholic Church has finally admitted it was wrong about persecuting Galileo (though 400-plus years after the fact), it still hasn’t apologized to the women of the world for murdering so many of them – and neither has any other Christian denomination or sect.  Overdue much?  You bet.  Even scarier, the murder of ‘uppity’ women continues today in the Third World wherever a belief in magic persists and wherever misogynistic sects occur, particularly in the Middle East and certain parts of Asia and Africa, even when no accusations of witchcraft are involved (being a modern, educated woman is apparently enough to offend some men).  But we digress.

Wishing you a truly spooky Hallowmas, in the best sense.
Boo to you, too, Michael and Marie

Michael Mink and Marie Traska

Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock as the witchy Owens sisters in the film Practical Magic

Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock as the Owens sisters in the film Practical Magic

One thought on “Old World origins of The Spooky Holiday Trifecta, Oct. 31 – Nov. 2

  1. Pingback: Spooky films:  The Devil’s Advocate | Spooky Things online

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