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Halloween Has Its Essential Roots In The Terrors Of The Primitive Mind

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It’s 3 A.M. You’re drunk, in a graveyard, and dressed like a Smurf hooker. Here’s why. Call it Samhain, Summer's End, All Hallows' Eve, November Eve, or Witches' Night - Halloween has its essential roots in the terrors of the primitive mind, which made no distinction between the waning of the sun and the potential extinction of the self. Ancient rituals of sacrifice and supplication were employed to guarantee a good harvest and, by extension, continued earthly existence.

In northern climates, harvest time was, or seemed, the very death of nature. As Robert Chambers, the great Victorian chronicler of holidays, characterized October: "As the fallen leaves career before us - crumbling ruins of summer's beautiful halls - we cannot help thinking of those who have perished - who have gone before us, blown forward to the grave by the icy blasts of Death."

Because life itself was literally in the balance at harvest, the close proximity of the visible world and the spirit world was more than metaphor. And so the tradition grew: for one night each year, permission would be granted to mortals to peer into the future, divine their fates, communicate with supernatural entities, and otherwise enjoy a degree of license and liberty unimaginable - or simply unattainable - the rest of the year.

Of course, the "return of the dead" is an evocative allegory for the return or expression of just about anything that's been buried, repressed, or stifled by the living. What's "dead" doesn't necessarily look like a walking corpse - just take a look at the variety of secret selves on parade at any Halloween celebration today. People "resurrect" themselves, besequinned and befeathered, as glamorous movie gods and goddesses, comic-book superheroes, immortal robots, insatiable satyrs, and inflatable sex balloons. Pneumatic breasts and phalluses bounce and bob everywhere. Fantastic, towering wigs and headdresses emblematize the startling energies that lurk in the minds beneath.

But attending these lively carnival images - always - are the classic images of mortality and the grave: skeletons, vampires, zombies, and ghosts. The grand marshal of the Halloween parade is, and always has been, Death. At Halloween, the living often make themselves appear dead, but this is only one night of the calendar. Down at the local mortuary for the rest of the year, extraordinary measures are taken to make the dead seem alive. As commentators ranging from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to Jessica Mitford have reminded us, American culture has considerable difficulty looking death in the eye. Modern embalming practices as cataloged by Mitford indeed amount to a macabre and evasive masquerade. In The American Way of Death, Mitford describes the evolution of modern funeral rituals into a "grotesque cloud-cuckoo-land where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying."

All histories of Halloween inevitably wind back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-win), which marked the death of summer and the beginning of the Celtic new year. The Celts comprised a wide range of peoples who inhabited the British Isles and parts of Northern Europe prior to the Roman invasions, and Samhain was one of their two major sun festivals (the other, Beltane, was the spring celebration of fertility). At Samhain, the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds was believed to be especially transparent. The physical portals between worlds were the sidhe, or fairy-mounds; many of these hillocks and barrows remain to this day, and are believed to be the sites of ancient Samhain rituals.

Modern, mass-media histories of Halloween - the kind that proliferate, sound-bite-style, every October - often leave the impression that the holiday has been handed down, more or less intact, from Celtic antiquity (similarly hollow claims are often made for the very modern religion of Wicca). In reality, contemporary Halloween is a patchwork holiday, a kind of cultural Frankenstein stitched together quite recently from a number of traditions, all fused beneath the cauldron-light of the American melting pot.

Antiquity, however, provides a handy tabula rasa for all kinds of modern projections, especially when historical records are skimpy. Take the druids, for example. The druids were the Celtic priest class, the repository of learning, tradition, and official ceremony. Because the druids left no written record of their practices and beliefs, they have long been the subject of fanciful speculation, alternately demonized and romanticized with the fashions of the times, and are often evoked in histories of Halloween. The druids are also linked in the popular imagination with Stonehenge and its mysteries, although the paleolithic edifice predates the Celts by a thousand years.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is remarkable how little of Halloween's supernatural element involves spirits of the dead or other underworld entities; the fantastic component collapses into a solitary obsession: getting a sneak supernatural peek at one's future mate. Next to nuts, apples were a favorite medium for divination of a male lover. It was believed, with remarkable uniformity throughout Great Britain, that a young woman could divine her romantic future by sitting before a mirror at Halloween midnight, slicing an apple into nine pieces, and holding each piece on the tip of the knife before eating it. Upon finishing her repast, it was said, the face of her future husband would appear over her shoulder in the mirror. Just why this tradition persisted as long as it did is something of a puzzle, since no real apple-apparitions were ever convincingly documented.

Not all Halloween divination stories had happy endings. According to one nineteenth-century account, "several well-authenticated instances are related of persons who, either from the effects of their own imagination, or some thoughtless practical joke, sustained such severe nervous shocks, while essaying these Halloween-spells, as seriously to imperil their health."

In all likelihood, the unspecified shocks revolved around darker divination practices, not the ones concerned with living sweethearts, but rather those conjuring the demon lover, Death. On Halloween in Wales, family members would toss white stones marked with their initials into the fire, pray, and go to bed. Those who could not locate their own stone in the morning were expected to die within the year. In Ireland, "Ashes were raked smooth on the hearth at bedtime on Hallowe'en, and the next morning examined for footprints. If one was turned from the door, guests or a marriage was prophesied; if toward the door, a death." Halloween was also the time when Irish children would return to the place where they had hung up an herb called "livelong" on Midsummer Eve. Those whose herbs had retained their color would prosper, those whose plants had withered would die themselves. Scottish children replenished the population by piling up cabbage stalks before retiring on Halloween, in the belief that a new brother or sister would shortly be provided to them - this, obviously, a variation on the belief that babies were found in cabbage patches.

The vegetable symbol most associated with Halloween is, of course, the jack-o'-lantern, which also had its roots in British folklore. Jack was a perennial trickster of folktales, who offended not only God but also the devil with his many pranks and transgressions. Upon his death, he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell, though the devil grudgingly tossed him a fiery coal, which Jack caught in a hollowed turnip and which would light his night-walk on earth until judgment Day. Jack's perpetual prank is the decoying of hapless travelers into the murky mire.

The story of Jack-o'-Lantern parallels that of Will-o'-the Wisp; both legends personify the phenomenon of fool's-fire, or ignis fatuus - the phosphorescent swamp gas long known in the bogs of Britain, and sometimes used today as a rather unconvincing explanation for UFO sightings. But just when the name became associated with the practice of carving fearsome faces into vegetables is less clear. The name certainly bears a striking similarity to Jack-o'-Lent, a puppet/scarecrow effigy of Elizabethan times which was pelted for sport on Ash Wednesday (the traditional customs of carnival had a great influence on the evolution of Halloween).

By the late 1890s, carved pumpkins were an integral part of American Halloween celebrations, judging from newspaper illustrations and commercial postcards. Still, the standard holiday chronicles of the period are oddly silent about this ubiquitous symbol of October 31. But by the turn of the century, Halloween practices and iconography were about to reach a critical mass.

Although its ancient roots are tangled in Celtic prehistory, Halloween as we know it today was ultimately created from diverse traditions that landed on American shores in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The Puritans had no use for the Romish rituals of Hallowtide (the dead, after all, were predestined to heaven or hell, so why pray for them?) but they believed passionately in the devil and most especially in witchcraft. Their witch-hunting zeal in New England found no real witches, but forever galvanized one of Halloween's most enduring symbols.

The Germans didn't celebrate Halloween, but they brought with them strong traditions of carnival and the supernatural. Fasnacht revels in Bavaria broke the solemnity of Lent with rowdy masked processions of skeletons, witches, and demons. Walpurgis Night, April 30, coincided with the ancient Celtic feast of Beltane, and, like Samhain, was believed to be a night when all manner of evil spirits walked the earth. (It was also the original Eve of All Souls, until the church moved the date to November.) French settlers brought memories of the medieval Feast of Fools and the Parisian Lenten carnival that gave birth to Mardi Gras. The Irish and Scots brought their fortune-telling spells, their bonfires, their fairy-worlds - but most of all, they brought the word Halloween.

David J. Skal. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween . Bloomsbury USA. 2002


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