October 2008

A Concise History of Halloween

Author: Paul deVere

It is TOTALLY ridiculous to accuse Procter & Gamble (owners of the Charmin brand) of secretly offering bands of junior high schoolers throughout the U.S. a “buy one, get one free” coupon for a six pack of “Septic-Safe, Charmin Basic” toilet paper. Do your math! P&G offered a two-for-one coupon for “Septic-safe Charmin Ultra Strong 24 Pack,” found only at Sam’s. Given the size of the houses on Hilton Head Island (to say nothing of the propensity of live oaks to simply EAT toilet paper), TP-ing a Hilton Head house and surrounding landscape on Halloween requires a minimum of 48 rolls of “Ultra Strong.”

For some people, Halloween is sort of a bogus holiday. Unless it falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the kids don’t get out of school and nobody gets off work. While those same people think it just another merchandising opportunity for costume and candy companies (it is), Halloween just happens to be one of the oldest holidays on the books. Actually, it’s older than most books (see below).

(Digression: Oldest “book.” The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the most ancient fiction in history. Written in “Ancient Mesopotamia,” [yes, that would be Iraq], the real bummer is that the last tablet is missing!)

Halloween, or variations thereof, has been going on for well over two millennia. Blame it on the Celts and their gurus, the Druids. In “Celt-land” (that would be Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France—but mostly Ireland), October 31 signaled the end of summer. November 1 was the beginning of winter—the new year. So Halloween is really New Year’s Eve? Sort of. Follow me here.

The Celts believed that the night before the new year (October 31), the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead kind of softened up (Parallel universe anyone? I love the guy, but Gene Roddenberry and C.S. Lewis and a bunch of other writers stole this stuff!). Since the otherworldly spirits could affect crops, weather and winter, the Celts built huge bonfires and roasted crops, animal bones and possibly the town drunk, to keep the dead from messing around the following year. They called it the festival of Samhain, (pronounced sow-in). Everybody dressed up in costumes with animal heads, skulls, etc.

(Digression: “Bonfire?” We do it at homecoming games, oyster roasts, deer hunts, book burnings. Back when the Druids ran things, it was a “bone fire.”)

Speaking of Druids, here’s the skinny. Stonehenge? Maybe, maybe not. But “trick or treat,” definitely. Here goes. Other than the bonfire, the Druids figured it a safe bet to appease the other-worlders with gifts. So they went house to house (hut to hut?) to collect these gifts or “treats.” Treats were small amounts of food called soal or soul cakes. For every cake given, a “soul” would be released from wherever it wasn’t supposed to be. (In the Christian era, that would be “Limbo.”) Tricks were really nastier back then: famine, flood, pestilence.

The tradition is noted in song. The folk group, Peter Paul and Mary, recorded a beautiful ballad called, “A Soalin,” which includes the verse:

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soal cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all.

Think of it. This tradition has been going on for over 2,000 years.

We can mash together a few centuries here and there and come up with the Romans, who conquered Celt-land in 46 AD and absorbed Samhain into two Roman festivals: Farelia (a celebration of the dead) and they day they honored the god Pomona, the gal in charge of fruits (dunking for apples, anyone?) and trees (that which, on Halloween, you “TP”). I’m not making this up.

Next (well, five centuries later), the Catholic Church enters the picture. Pope Boniface IV, known for turning pagan temples (i.e., the Pantheon) into Christian Churches, turns Samhain-Farelia-Pomona into a three-day Christian event. November first becomes All Saints Day, November second is All Souls Day, And October 31 is the “Eve of All Saints Day,” or “Hallowmas.” Which turns into…. you get the picture. But Boniface never did get his arms around Halloween.

(Digression: During Boniface’s pontificate, Muhammad began to preach in Mecca, forming the basis of Islam. Didn’t anybody give Boniface IV a heads up? They were a couple hundred miles apart. They could have met. Talked things over, shared some tea, told some jokes, become friends…)

So the costume thing comes from a bunch of Celts running around dressed up like animals and dead people. Trick or Treat can be credited to the Druids. Bobbing for apples comes from Poloma, a rather interesting lady, by the way. This, however, is a family publication.

And the pumpkins? Bottom line, by the time Halloween got flushed through the Celts, Druids, Romans, and the Pope, it sort of took on a life of its own. Irish kids (in the 18th and 19th centuries) used to carve up turnips and potatoes with grotesque faces to celebrate “All hollows eve.” A wee bit of the pagan in them still. The Irish legend of “Jack-O-Lantern” puts Jack, a drunken blacksmith, in an ale house with the devil. Jack sells his soul for a drink. When Jack dies, he can’t get into heaven because of his pact with the devil, but even Satan won’t take him in because he’s that bad of a guy. (That’s bad.). He must wander the world forever. However, Satan gives him a piece of “hell fire” in his pumpkin to light his way. Wow.

Of course, the coolest Halloween pumpkin business is the national “Pumpkin Chunkin Championships held every year, from October 31 through November 2 (note the dates). Featured in the book, 100 Things to Do Before You Die, you have just got to see the World Pumpkin Chunkin Championships in Sussex County, Delaware. Via a special catapult (or a “pumpkin cannon,” and other apparatus), the “Adult Air” (the pros) title went to team “Big 10 Inch,” at 4122.7 feet last year. The pumpkin, however, does not survive.

For those of you who are ignorant of such things, the Halloween Capital of the World is, get this, Anoka, MN! What’s so important about Anoka? Well, they had the first Halloween parade in America in 1920, and in 1937, due to a plea from its citizens, the U.S. Congress granted the town the title of “Halloween Capital of the World.” Even in 1937, Congress was into really important stuff.

Now there are the connections with Anoka and the Pope and the Romans and the Celts and the Druids. Was it that soccer star Briana Scurry graduated from Anaka High School in 1989? Not even close. (But we do love Briana!)

At last, just in time of Halloween, we have discovered what might possibly the last bastion of the Celts, Druids, Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, and your basic Halloween revelers. Anoka, Minnesota is the birthplace of Garrison Keillor, the host of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion and star of the movie by the same name. (Meryl Streep will knock your socks off with her singing if you haven’t seen it.)

As the date approaches, as children don masks of various heros, as Hershey, filling its coffers with cash, corporately yells, “Go Celts,” we, as responsible parents and adults must demand, “I get dibs on the Milk Duds!”

Let Us Know what You Think ...

commenting closed for this article

Social Bookmarks