Since we are nearing the most child-centered holiday on the calendar, I thought I would take little time to learn about the origins of Halloween. I had heard vaguely that it was connected to the Day of the Dead and the Catholic All Saints Day, but I was a bit sketchy on the details.
In fact it was not always a children’s holiday- and frankly it seems as if it’s recently becoming less so once again as more and more adults (or at least members of that ever growing lifecycle period which is post college but pre dirty diapers) have taken to celebrating an R-rated version of it. It turns out that Halloween most likely has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic feast called Samhain which marked the very end of Summer. It was the start of the new year, and the day when animals were brought from distant pastures.
One interesting idea that I came across was that the Celts were very concerned with the opposing forces of the Earth and of life: dark/light, life/death, etc. Thus the liminal times, between the cold season and the warm season, day and night, were considered very special and perhaps dangerous. It was believed that the time of year between November 1 and the Winter solstice was the time when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, an idea which I find very poetic. Magic was unleashed on earth and divination was thought to be at its most potent. This notion gives rise to two traditions – honoring the dearly beloved and fearing unwanted ghosts and spirits. The traditions surrounding Halloween/Day of the Dead have seemingly always contained both of these elements.
Originally, typical Samhain traditions apparently were: 1) Bonfires. One source I found says that the night fires were thought to consume all the miseries of the past year, a way of cleaning the slate for the new year. Perhaps it was also a symbol of the contact between dark and light. 2) Turnip lanterns, which some say meant to keep evil spirits out of the home. The term Jack o lanterns supposedly comes from an old Irish folk legend about a manipulative man named Jack who tricked the Devil into agreeing to keep him out of Hell, but was too evil to enter Heaven, and so his soul wanders, lit by a lantern. 3) Wandering in costume, which was probably also a way of tricking spirits, and 4) Food offerings and sacrifices to the deceased. Meat and harvest fruits and vegetables were always central to the holiday. One last interesting fact I came across is that apple bobbing is apparently an ancient tradition, originally one of many divination games that people played in the hopes of gaining insight into the coming year. It was said that the one who managed the grab the apple would get married within the year.
Later, the traditions of Samhain became intertwined with Christianity by way of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, undoubtedly attempts by the church to claim and redirect non-Christian traditions. These holidays similarly honored the dead, and offered praise and prayers for ancesters or saints. “Souling,” a practice in which poor people or youngsters would solicit offerings from wealthier families in exchange for prayers for their deceased, became a common practive. One common gift was “soul cakes,” a rich bread, swirled with raisins, currants, and other dried fruit. It is perhaps the tradition of souling which gave rise to trick-or-treating.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps at the very beginning, pranks also became a staple of the holiday, mixing well with the street-roaming that seems to have also always been part of the tradition. Another source I found suggested that, as with the veil between living and dead, the usual boundaries of society were also lifted on this day, allowing people to dress as others or even cross dress.
Today, we have been left mostly with the pranks in which we attempt to scare each other, the costumed street-roaming, and a satirical dancing with death- not the more serious side of this ancient holiday. The tradition of trick or treating finally took its current form in America after WWII, when sugar rationing ended, and commercialized candy became central to the holiday, perhaps as a way for residential communities to dissuade young people from getting into trouble on that night. I suppose it has also become the obligatory costume holiday that every culture needs, since Anglo-Saxon cultures do not observe Carnaval. Traditions much more closely reflecting the original spirit of the holiday do persist, however, in Mexico, for example, where Dia de los muertos remains a celebration of the dead.
As always, I will leave you with a couple of recipes. One is for Barmbrack, which is an Irish Halloween tradition, closely resembling the soul cakes. I really enjoyed this bread, which is a bit like a sweet challah with dried fruits mixed throughout. The second is for an applesauce dessert, apples being another essential Harvest festival food that also featured centrally in Irish fortune-telling games. My special touch here is adding Dulce de leche, caramalized sweetened condensed milk, which is widely available in grocery stores and Latin markets, and toffee bits. This is a great way to make apples into a simple, healthy dessert.
- Around 3 cups of flour
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 2 tsp dried yeast
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 cup milk
- 1 beaten egg
- 1 cup raisins
- 3/4 cup currants
- 1/4 cup dates, sliced
- 1 Earl Grey tea bag
- 3-4 large apples or 5-6 small ones
- 2 tbsp Dulce de leche
- English toffee bits (available near chocolate chips at the grocery store)