Saturday, October 31, 2015

Samhain or Halloween—What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

NoteBack by popular demand!  It’s the sixth annual appearance of this holiday classic. 
I am guessing that readers of this blog are probably more familiar with the origins and development of Halloween than most folks.  But for review: 
Halloween traces its origin to the Celtic harvest festival Samhain.  It was one of the four festivals that fell between the Solstices and Equinoxes and which celebrated the natural turning of the seasons.  Samhain was particularly important because it was the gate in time to the death and starvation season of winter, as well a time to celebrate the recent harvest. 
This association with the death of winter also extended to the spirit world, which was considered to be closer to the mortal plane than at any other time of the year.  The Celtic priests—the Druids—marked the occasion with the lighting of bon fires and gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead.  Some consider it also analogous to a New Year’s Celebration launching a new cycle of the seasons.  It was popularly celebrated by the peasantry long after the Druids passed and well into the Christian era.
Too popular to squelch, as with many pagan observances Catholic Church co-opted the custom as All Saints Day on November 1.   In rural regions especially Samhain customs continued to be observed on the evening before the Holy Day—which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en in Scots.
Immigrants from the British Isles brought some of their customs with them, but Halloween does not seem to have been widely celebrated colonial America.  The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to squelch  other pagan customs like the May Pole dances associated with the spring Celtic festival of Bealtaine, but for all of their obsession with witchcraft, usually associated with those who continued to keep the old pagan traditions, there is no evidence of suppressing  Samhain or Halloween.
In fact there is little mention of Halloween in American at all until the late years of the 19th Century when a few scattered newspapers began reporting ritual begging on Halloween by masked youths accompanied by general hooliganism, threats, and acts of vandalism.  This was probably introduced by the wave of poor “country” Irish immigrants that began after the Potato Famine and continued through most of the rest of the century.
As it spread, customs for observing the holiday varied regionally.  Parties with games such as bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories were fairly common.  The custom of trick or treating seems to have spread slowly.  What progress it was making was largely interrupted by the Depression years when families had little extra money to spend on treats and by the sugar rationing of World War II.

The classic film Meet Mei in St. Louis presented some of the first images of  popular Halloween customs in this country, both the ritual begging that became known as trick or treating and the general hooliganism around the celebration that was regularly decried in the newspapers at the Turn of the 20th Century.  Here Margaret O'Brien, allowed to go out unescorted for the begging is terrified by the wild vandalism on the street.

In 1947 the popular children’s magazine Jack and Jill published a story on the custom of Halloween begging and described it in detail, spreading the practice widely and with amazing uniformity.  By 1951 the practice was wide spread enough that a Philadelphia woman, Mary Emma Allison and the Reverend Clyde Allison decided to channel the energy to constructive purposes by introducing Trick or Treat for UNICEF to support the work of the United Nation’s international children’s work.
By the mid 1950’s with the strong support of the candy companies and the introduction of cheap masks and pajama style costumes for children, the practice of trick or treating had become ubiquitous and had even taken on a feeling of a long standing practice.

Cheap commercially made costumes and masks spread Trick or Treating through city and suburban Post-War neighborhoods and helped make Halloween a ubiquitous childrens celebration.
What started with ghost stories and the like, soon spread to all types of horror, fueled by the growing popularity of increasingly violent Hollywood films.  Gore became and more and more common theme and showing horror films for the whole month of October in theaters and on TV was standard by the early 1970’s.
Starting in the 70's the rise of slasher movies and gore changed the tone Halloween

About the same time the first generations of trick or treaters grew up but continued to enjoy the dress-up and parties of Halloween.  It is, year by year, an increasingly popular adult holiday, incorporating many of the features of various world masquerade festivals with macabre twist.
Halloween is now the second most widely celebrated holiday in the United States and is an economic powerhouse, generating sales second only to Christmas.  Popular American media have spread the customs of trick or treating and celebrating gore around the world, often supplanting truly ancient celebrations of Halloween in the Celtic countries.
The resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism in the U.S. has led to a counter movement to strip the “Satanic” festival from public schools and the wider community.  Although they get it wrong—there was never any connection between Satanism and Halloween—the fundies, ironically, at least recognized a religious tradition hiding under the commercial hoopla. 

Wiccans and other neo-pagans attempt to interpret and resurrect what they believe are ancient Samhain traditions. 
At the same time re-invented “traditional” paganism like Wicca, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements of the last twenty years, has striven to recapture the nearly lost significance of the holiday’s roots in Samhain.
Go thou, and celebrate as thou wouldst.