Halloween: A festival that celebrates superstition

Uday Kumar Varma

Photo © wewishes.com

As people in some parts of India prepare to celebrate ‘Chhath’, and to pay obeisance to Sun God and his consorts -Usha and Pratyusha – America and part of Europe is looking forward to a strange tradition – Halloween.

Halloween commemorates the dead, the ghosts, the witches, the goblins and the evil spirits. People dress in scary, ghastly costumes and imitate practices that are superstitious and antediluvian.

In this article – first of a two part series, the author tries to discover about this weird and strange custom, also underscoring the fact that humans are, at the end of the day, universally irrational.

How does a country that scoffs at superstition and boasts of a progressive temperament, celebrate a festival that commemorates the dead, the ghosts, the witches, the goblins and the evil spirits? Wearing costumes of the most weird, scary and terrifying varieties that disguise, scare, spook and thrill, halloween is arguably the most popular festival second in importance and participation only to Christmas. One quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. exceeding $2.5 billion is purchased for Halloween. Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually for this festival, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
What explains this horrid tradition?

A Celtic Tradition
Halloween is a holiday celebrated each year on October 31. The tradition originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. The Celts lived 2,000 years ago, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. The very next day that is November 1, they used to celebrate their new year.

October is the month when the bright and gay season of summer concludes.  This day marks the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter that often brought human deaths. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

Celts also thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the  Celtic priests, called Druids, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.

When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

Roman Influence
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the 400 years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin, namely ‘Feralia’ commemorating passing of the dead, and Festival of Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruits and trees were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of bobbing for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

Christianization of Samhain,  Celebrating All Saints’ Day
What Roman did, Christianity tried to do one better. On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1. Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. 

The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. The name Halloween therefore, comes from All Hallows Eve.

In 1000 A.D., the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It’s widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday. The All Saints’ Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, festive gatherings, donning costumes and eating treats.

Halloween Comes to America
Halloween to begin with had a very limited appeal in US, largely in southern colonies. Colonial New England because of rigid Protestant beliefs was mostly free of it, till the middle of 19th Century was flooded by new immigrants including millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato famine, bringing with them the many practices of celebrating Halloween.

And then began a synthesizing process retaining most of the Celtic traditions  like ‘trick or treat’, dressing up in costumes, lighting bonfire etc. while attempting to take anything frightening or grotesque from the celebrations.

In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mould Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost some of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Halloween Parties
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide Halloween parties as the featured entertainment. However, vandalism began to plague some celebrations in many communities during this time.

By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.

Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. Families preferred providing the neighborhood children with small treats than becoming objects of tricks, some of which could be rather nasty.

Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. 

(To be continued)

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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