by Henry Chapman (CAVITYCOLORS resident shirt shipper and email answerer, among other things)
Halloween is a famously complicated holiday with a twisting, turning origin story. But ask any reputable historian, and they’ll tell you: the true tale of Hallowe’en begins on a sunny October day in 1999 in Lawrence, Kansas, when a young Henry Chapman dressed up as “a velociraptor:”
Honestly, cast this guy in a modern slasher. Or maybe a bank heist movie.
Okay, yes, that may be a bit of an exaggeration of my own legacy. But given a pair of rubber velociraptor hands and a huge, floppy velociraptor mask, don’t you think it was innovative to finish the costume with a green sweatsuit and hiking boots? Avante garde, maybe? Let’s just agree to call this moment “a game-changing modern landmark that sparked a re-examination of the art form.” Seem fair?
But the real story of Halloween, the Halloween that I was so excited to celebrate as a 7-year-old therapod, is a fascinating cultural mish-mash. A story of religions, traditions, and superstitions, one that crosses the threshold between the living and the dead. A story that spans millennia.
There exist much more comprehensive accounts of how Halloween came to be - this is only a quick recap, borne from a question that popped into my head recently. How old is Halloween, really? Let’s work our way backwards from that fateful day in 1999, and see how deep this thing really goes.
The modern form of Halloween - candy, pumpkins, costumes - had already kicked into full gear by the first half of the 1900’s. The holiday continued to transform throughout the 20th century, and the explosion of the movie industry had a large impact on its aesthetics. The Universal horror classics - Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941) - all became go-to costume choices, in addition to the more generic “witch” and “ghost” get-ups that kids already loved.
But all of the most important hallmarks of Halloween were in place long before the holiday morphed into the version we celebrate today. Halloween made its way to the United States in the 1800’s, as a huge influx of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland made the trip across the ocean and settled in the US. They brought with them an earlier version of Halloween that was celebrated in Irish-American and Scottish-American communities, before it spread into the general population. One change occurred for the sake of convenience - the turnips traditionally carved for Halloween gave way to pumpkins, the North American native plant with a larger canvas and softer tissue for better carving.
I love pumpkin carving as much as the next guy, but this carved turnip from the Museum of Country Life in Ireland might just give me nightmares. Maybe we should bring them back. (photo credit)
The 1800’s Halloween was already a cultural Frankenstein of sorts (Frankenstein’s monster, yes, for you sticklers out there). It was a combination of Samhain, the ancient Celtic harvest festival, and the Christian observance of Allhallowtide (three holy days of obligation, including All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day). The relationship between these two separate celebrations is remarkably complicated and debated over.
Catholic festivals celebrating the dead were, for many centuries, local affairs. Each community would establish its own time during the year when respects would be paid. But the celebrations became so numerous that a standardized holiday called All Saint’s Day (during May) was created in the early 7th century. In the year 835, Pope Gregory IV officially moved All Saints’ Day from May to its current date of November 1st. All Saints’ Day had existed for several hundred years, but the holiday’s relocation put it on the exact date of Samhain, the pagan celebration of the dead observed in Celtic communities.
It isn’t fully clear why the holiday was moved, but one of the primary theories is as follows: as Christianity grew and spread into new areas, the Church found that a large number of their new constituents were already celebrating a festival of the dead on November 1st (Samhain). So rather than fight with Samhain, they instead assimilated the local customs into their own tradition. Called “Interpretatio Christiana,” this strategy was a Papally-sanctioned way to ease and ensure the Christianization of a newly-converted region. Rather than telling people to forget everything they already believed and practiced, the Church simply re-interpreted existing holidays and customs into a Christian framework. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and some believe that the same methodology is what has resulted in the unique and often strange cultural celebrations of modern Christmas and Easter.
BOO! Sorry, I thought you may be nodding off a bit after that slightly academic tangent. But back to Halloween. The most beloved ritual of modern Halloween is, of course, trick or treating - kids in costumes going door-to-door, giving an implicit threat in exchange for some candy or chocolate. Trick or treating is another old custom with a fuzzy history. Some attribute it to the middle-ages Christian Halloween practice of “souling,” which involved groups going to rich people’s homes and offering their prayers in exchange for “soul cakes,” a small round bread cake. Threatening mischief and offering prayers aren’t exactly interchangeable concepts, though, and the “trick” element is harder to explain with only that hypothesis.
But this brings us, at last, to Samhain. The pre-Christian Gaelic festival was seen as a “liminal” time, meaning that the boundary between our world and the world of the spirits would be at its thinnest, and souls could travel between realms. Some believe that trick or treating originally began as participants impersonating the souls of the dead, and that evil spirits were the ones to blame for mischievous pranksters’ actions. The tricks and mischief eventually became a distinct aspect of the holiday, with some people celebrating “Mischief Night” on the 30th.
A quick side note on the concept of “liminal” times and places: any location can be a “liminal space,” if it gives off an eerie, otherworldly sensation, and it feels like a place where the lines are suddenly blurred between our world and another. A wonderful old tumblr post suggested some modern ideas of “liminal spaces,” including “playgrounds at night,” “empty parking lots,” “early in the morning wherever it’s just snowed,” “schools during breaks,” and of course, “any Target.”
Purgatory-like dimension, easily punctured by spirits good and evil? Or one stop shop for underwear and Pokemon cards? (photo credit from Yelp)
Samhain, spirits and all, was a crucial step in the seasonal cycle for the Gaelic people who originally celebrated it. The date marked the end of the harvest, when herds of cattle returned from the pasture and communities paid respect to the spirits of the Aos Sí. These were spirits from Irish mythology, believed to live in the ancient mounds throughout the landscape, who were both beloved and feared. The costumed element of Halloween may have originated in the Samhain practice of dressing up, either to imitate the Aos Sí or perhaps to disguise oneself from them. Many of the oldest Samhain customs revolve around appeasing these spirits, including one major ritual that mostly hasn’t survived - the lighting of bonfires.
Hard, recorded information on the history of Samhain is difficult to come by (as is the case with most human cultural events that go back this far). Descriptions of the customs themselves are frequently agreed upon, but their inspirations and origins differ depending on the telling. Bonfires, for example, served several purposes - they encouraged growth and life, to stave off the cold and death of winter, as well as assisting in divination rituals held to predict the marriages and deaths of those present.
Though bonfires didn’t seep into Halloween tradition the way other Samhain practices did, there are those who still celebrate the original festival. The above is from a Samhain bonfire ceremony in 2009, put on by the Council of Magickal Arts. (photo credit - Lisa Dugger on flickr)
The festival of Samhain also figures prominently in traditional Irish mythology. A famous hero from these tales, Fionn mac Cumhaill, performed one of his most legendary acts during Samhain - the slaying of Aillen, a fire-breathing being from the Otherworld. Every year during Samhain, Aillen crossed over into our world at Tara (a site in eastern Ireland), lulled everyone present to sleep with his sweet music, then burned the whole place to the ground. Fionn, a young warrior with a magical burning spear, kept himself awake by repeatedly poking the tip of the spear to his forehead. Aillen was slain with the same spear shortly thereafter, and Fionn was honored as a hero.
Tales of myth and magic aside, let’s get back to our original question, one last time - how old is Halloween? Christianity certainly played an important role in the evolution of the holiday, but with ghosts flittering about, tricking, treating, costuming, and the illumination of carved vegetables (okay yes, pumpkins are technically fruit), the bulk of Halloween’s traditions are deeply rooted in old Samhain. So how far back does human celebration of Samhain go? We can only look to anthropological findings in the Irish countryside, where the festival was born. Ancient structures, stones and mounds, can be found spread across the hills. Some stone rings are reminiscent of the famous Stonehenge, across the Irish Sea in modern England. But it’s one particular mound that tells us an important secret.
At Tara, the very location of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s heroic victory, is a construction called The Mound of the Hostages. It is what’s referred to as a passage mound, a large earthen structure that more or less resembles a hill, but with a stone passage cutting a straight line through the core of it. That passageway through the mound is pitch dark for nearly the entire year - but on the morning of Samhain, it is illuminated by sunlight. It was built, with astrological precision, for the exact annual date of Samhain (as well as Samhain’s mirror date, the spring festival of Imbolc, which is the only other day of the year when light shines through the passage). But modern estimates put the construction of the Mound of the Hostages between 3350 and 2800 BCE - which is even before Celtic-speaking peoples arrived in Ireland. What sort of celebration or significance Samhain had to these prehistoric humans is, unfortunately, beyond our capability to discover. But it is certain - in one form or another, humans have been recognizing the power of this date for around five thousand years.
So when it’s time to don your costumes and gorge yourself on chocolate (I’m right there with you, no judgment), take a quick second to think about Halloween. There may be something special about the night of the 31st. Something we’ve always known about, deep down in our bones. Something that is beyond our understanding. But just barely. We can catch glimpses, if we’re lucky, of the magic.
The Hill of Tara, still shaping the countryside, built millenia ago. The Mound of the Hostages is the smaller hill on the right. (image credit)