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2006-10-30
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A Snarky Halloween History

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Contributed Article By: Lord Dilly

Its that time of year again, when the trees vomit colorful dead leaves all over your lawn and the weather can’t decide if it’s hot or cold, or even both at the same time (as Lewis Black once said, "it’s not weather, it’s malaria").[1] Yes, it is fall and we all know what that means -- Halloween, that festive time of the year when kids dress up in fantastic costumes, bob for apples, and go trick-or-treating. Well, unless they live in a community that has done away with Halloween because some Christians say it’s a holiday for Satan, or some Jews say it’s too Christian, or some Wiccans say it makes fun of their religion (which has as much to do with ancient witchcraft as P. Diddy has to do with Bluegrass, but that’s neither here nor there). Actually, all of those people are wrong about Halloween (plus they are morons). The real roots of Halloween dig deep into the past and are entwined with more than one culture and religion, with Satan and witches nowhere in sight -- well, until the Middle Ages, anyway.

Fun With Celts

Over 2,000 years ago, a group of people native to Britain, Ireland and France called the Celts (nowhere near Boston) began each new year on November 1st (a practice probably started by the Irish Celts, who I imagine couldn’t wait until January to party whilst wearing festive hats).[2] These folk believed that at this time the walls between the world of the living and the dead became thin and the spirits of the deceased would try to take over the bodies of the living, apparently because of the lack of really good grain alcohol on the other side.[3] Thus, on October 31st, in order to protect themselves from the body-jacking spirits of the dead, the Celts held the festival of Samhain (Pronounced sow-in. Why it’s just not spelled Sowin is beyond me -- it’s not like the Celts had a written language that used the same Alphabet as modern English but with a funky pronunciation key just for giggles. Unless they did. But I digress.). During this hootin-anny the Celts would extinguish their hearth fires in order to make their homes less hospitable to the spirits of the dead[4] (which probably makes more sense after a pint or two of Guinness). They would then dress up in animal skins and don masks (wouldn’t you?) and light huge sacred bonfires. In order to please their various wacky gods, the people would offer sacrifices by throwing crops, animals, and the occasional village idiot onto the bonfires,[5] possibly chanting an ancient version of “The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire!” Afterwards, the Celts would relight their hearths from the sacred bonfires, which is probably why they were keen on building stone houses, as it's a lot harder to accidentally burn down your home after a night of drunken revelry.[6]

The Romans Love a Good Roast

Life was good for the Celts, if by "good" you mean living in constant fear of pissed off faeries (it’s less gay if you spell “faeries” with the “ae” than “ie”) and evil spirits. Then the Romans came. By around 43 AD Rome had conquered most of the Celtic lands.[7] The Romans, who enjoyed seeing village idiots die in hilariously violent ways as much as the next guy, adopted the Celtic traditions of Samhain as their own. Eventually Samhain became assimilated into two other Roman holidays, Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans paid homage to the passing of the dead, and a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.[8] Goddess of fruit and trees? Where does that fit into two morbid holidays about the dead? Wouldn't that be like combining two celebrations dedicated to Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard with a holiday for Carrot Top? The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which might explain the tradition of bobbing for apples. Oh, and the Celts used apple bobbing as a marriage divination, wherein the first young lass to get the apple was destined to marry that coming year, or barring that, she was at least guaranteed to enjoy a delicious healthy snack. Okay, maybe that explains the tradition of bobbing for apples. Jeez, did the Romans try to take credit for everything?[9]

Popes and Trick-or-Treating

In the 600s, Pope Boniface IV designated May 13th as All-hallowmas (from Middle English, Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints' Day), a solemn holiday to honor all of the Saints in Heaven and in the Super Dome. By the 800s Christian influence had spread throughout the Roman Empire. In 835, Pope Gregory III changed the date of All-hallowmas to November 1st. The idea was that instead of grinding the old-timey traditions of former Pagan people to dust (the "stick" approach, if you will), thus likely incurring resentment, it would help people ease into Christianity by converting their holidays and festivals into something Church sanctioned (the "carrot" approach, which also has the added benefit of providing healthy eyesight -- unless I'm getting too literal with my metaphors.) The day before All-hallomas became known as All-hallows Eve and eventually just Halloween,[10] which is far easier to say after a few pints of Guinness.[11] Later on, in 1000 AD, the Church would designate November 2nd as All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead, with big bonfires (sans village idiot roasting), parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. On this day Christians would also walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes" made out of square pieces of bread with currants, thus setting down the tradition of “Trick or Treat” minus the trick.[12] And, let’s face it, the treat.

In the Middle Ages: Less Fun, More Persecution and Death

However much the Church hoped that Pagan beliefs associated with Samhain would die out, the belief of faeries and elves and itinerant dead stubbornly hung around, probably due in no small part to the influence of those wacky kinds of alcohol the Europeans are well known for making.[13] So the Church did what any reasonable organization committed to saving as many souls as possible would do: proclaimed belief in faeries, elves, and pissed off dead spirits as the work of the Devil and started burning people at the stake. Thus were the ancient Druids proclaimed traffickers in devilry and witchcraft, and thus the connection between Halloween, Satan, and witches. Followers of the old religions went underground to avoid having their souls saved via the direct application of pointy implements and fire.[14]

Halloween Comes To America

Since I've found literally nothing concerning Halloween practices during the Renaissance, I think we can safely assume everybody forgot about it at that time.[15] Halloween traditions did appear to have gone by the wayside in most of Europe, with the exception of Ireland and Scotland, home of Guinness[16] and Claymores, respectively. The huge influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants into America in the late 1800s brought with them Halloween traditions such as the jack-o'-lantern, mischievous spirits (other than whiskey) and pranks such as tipping over outhouses and unhinging gates. Those wacky Irish.

The jack-o'-lantern comes from an 18th Century Irish folk tale about a drunkard (An Irish drunkard? I refuse to believe it.) named (Wait for it.) Jack (or Stingy Jack, or Piss Drunk Lying in a Pool of His Own Vomit Jack), who one day tricked the Devil into climbing a tree. Okay, right there I have to wonder: did people ever interrupt ye olde tellers of this tale back when it was new by asking "How did Jack get the Devil to climb a tree?" I can only imagine the reply was "He... he just did _okay_!" Anywho, Jack carved a cross on the trunk of the tree, trapping the devil, who apparently was afraid of taking a ten foot fall. Wuss. Jack then made the Devil promise to leave him alone for ten years in exchange for getting out of the tree. So, you've got the Devil himself trapped in a tree, and the best you can get out of him is "give me my space!" Loser. Well, Jack up and died and was denied entrance into Heaven because he was right bastard, but he was also kicked outta Hell for making the Devil feel bad. I repeat, wuss. Ole Scratch instead gave Jack a single ember to light his way through the darkness. Jack placed the ember inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer whilst he roamed the Earth, cursed never to know rest. Or how to make deals that aren't stupid. Wanker. The Irish and Scottish began to carve scary faces into turnips and place them in windows to frighten away Jack. Keep in mind that these are the same people who used to go into battle buck nekkid, painted blue, and screaming their heads off. When Irish immigrants came to the New World they quickly realized that our manly pumpkins were way cooler than their Old World wimpy turnips, thus we have the modern "jack-o'-lantern."[17]

Modern Halloween: Fun If You Aren't Uptight

By the 1930s in America, Halloween had become a community affair, with parades and town-wide parties, yet nary a grumbling about "Satan" or "witchcraft." Vandalism and pranks had become a problem on Halloween though, mostly because of Satan and witchcraft, or so I'm told. By the '50s town leaders had successfully limited vandalism by turning the holiday mainly towards the ankle biter crowd, which was at an all-time high because of the post-WWII baby boom. Trick-or-Treating[18] also became popular, as did the practice of toilet papering the house of any stingy bastard who dared give out apples instead of candy.

Of course, in the last few years "well meaning" (and by "well meaning" I mean meddling wieners too cowardly to take on real problems in their communities) began to express concern over Halloween activities (and by "concern" I mean belly-aching about harmless fun because they are meddling wieners too cowardly to take on real problems in their communities). School districts have banned Halloween celebrations because it "glorifies the devil" according to some Conservative Christians, or because it is "haram (forbidden)" by Muslims for, well, the same reason as the Conservative Christians. A school district in Washington State has even banned Halloween on the off chance it will offend witches. Really.[19] Since we are on the subject of offense, I personally am offended by people who are offended by every freaking harmless thing under the guise of religion and browbeat gutless functionaries into ruining it for the rest of us.

Halloween Urban Legends (or People Will Believe Anything)

In recent times there have been a plethora of horror stories about razor blades in apples, poisoned candy, and the ritual sacrifice of cats. While there have been documented reports of booby-trapped Halloween apples (possibly justifying a pre-emptive toilet papering of the home of that stingy bastard who you know will give you an apple), none have resulted in serious injury and most reports are shady, at best. "Oh look, dad, I just happened to bite into this apple which just happens to have a razor blade in it and I just happened to not get hurt at all."[20] Kids -- about as trustworthy as a drunken Irishman with Satan in a tree.

Early Christians probably got the wiggins about some madman randomly poisoning soul-cakes on All Soul's Day, and such paranoia has been a mainstay of Halloween ever since. While there have been reports of poisoned Halloween candy, each one has turned out to be either accidental or deliberately perpetrated by a family member (That's got to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Apparently you can trust the Crazy Cat Lady down the street with your Halloween candy more than Uncle Mort. Or that stingy bastard with the apples.).[21]

Claims of Halloween Satanic cat sacrifices are inconclusive at best, as there seems to be only anecdotal evidence, if any at all.[22] Wait a minute -- I thought cats were supposed to be witches' familiars and thus in league with the Devil? Why would Devil worshipers sacrifice -- oh look, my eyes have gone crossed.

Conclusion (Mostly Because I'm Sleepy)

So what have we learned about Halloween? It's very old, has nothing to do with the Devil, and there are people who stay awake at night because someone, somewhere might be having fun. The Irish can trick the Devil but don't follow through very well, Guinness makes everything easier to believe, and toilet papering is too good for that miserly geezer who gives out fruit (or granola!) instead of candy.



1. Black, Lewis. The White Album. 2000.

2. Fleming, Fergus; Husain, Shahrukh; Littleton, C.Scott and Malcor, Linda A. Heroes of Myth and Dawn: Celtic Myth. London: Duncan Baird Publishers. 1996. p.8.

3. MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. London: Hamlyn House. 1970. p.127.

4. "History of Halloween: Ancient Origins." History.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=713&display_order=1&sub_display_order=1&mini_id=1076.

5. MacCulloch, John Arnott. The Religion of The Ancient Celts. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1911. p.292. I should note, for accuracy's sake, that more than likely the Celts would, depending on the source, either sacrifice criminals or prisoners of war on the bonfires or burn at the stake some poor schlub thought to already be possessed.

6. Fleming p.36-37.

7. "History of Halloween: Ancient Origins." History.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=713&display_order=1&sub_display_order=1&mini_id=1076.

8. "History of Halloween: Ancient Origins." History.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=713&display_order=1&sub_display_order=1&mini_id=1076.

9. Santino, Jack ed. Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1994. p.83.

10. "History of Halloween: Ancient Origins." History.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=713&display_order=1&sub_display_order=1&mini_id=1076.

11. Trust me, I've tried -- in the interest of science, of course.

12. Phillips, Valerie. "Tricks & treats: 'Soul cakes' and food folklore spice up All Hallows Eve." Available online at http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,520034256,00.html

13. I'm talking about stuff like Absinthe, known as "the green fairy" by the French (go figure), a heady alcoholic substance containing wormwood that is reputed to cause hallucinations and the occasional killing spree, favored by such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, and Vincent Van Gogh.

14. Santino, Jack. "The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows." Available online at http://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html.

15. Kidding! Jeez, lighten up.

16. Yes, that is the third or fourth mention of Guinness in this article. I'm mostly of Irish descent and I really like Guinness, so screw you for judging me.

17. "History of Halloween: The Great Pumpkin." History.com. http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=716&display_order=3&mini_id=1076.

18. "History of Halloween: Evolution of a Holiday". History.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=715&display_order=1&sub_display_order=3&mini_id=1076.

19. Caldwell, Deborah. "Banning Halloween." Beliefnet. Available online at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/48/story_4828_1.html.

20. Mikkelson, Barbara. "Pins and Needles." Snopes.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/mayhem/needles.asp.

21. Mikkelson, Barbara. "Halloween Poisonings." Snopes.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/poison/halloween.asp.

22. Mikkelson, Barbara and David P. "Cat o' Nine Tales." Snopes.com. Accessed October 2006 from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/mayhem/blackcat.asp.


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