Uday Kumar Varma
The second part of the article on Halloween, discusses some of the rituals associated with it. What may perhaps on the face of it, appear rank superstition, on closer analysis, offers explanations that may seem facile but reasonably understandable.
But what makes this unusual festival sustain and grow though, is the American ingenuity and talent to transform traditions into businesses of profit. The fact that Halloween, in terms of commerce in the US, stands second only to Christmas, eloquently underlines this unique American quest.
The tradition to relate to the dead and departed has been part of most civilizations. Halloween sanctifies it in a far more interesting and engaging manner. Therein lies the reason for its continued popularity.
The Celtic end- of- summer festivals were marked by a sense of connect with the deceased friends and relatives, and for those friendly spirits, places were set at the dinner table, treats were left on doorsteps and along the side of the road; and candles were lit to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world. The rituals gave the festival an aura of mystery, magic and superstition, but also of love and concern.
Over the years though, Halloween ghosts are far more fearsome and malevolent, and our imagination has invented an unending diversity of the most horrid kind.
Beliefs and Rituals
‘Trick or Treating’, disguising in grotesque masks and decorating the houses and establishments with scary frightening weird objects and figures, are the commonly preferred form of celebrating Halloween. The carved pumpkin-lanterns are a special feature and so of course are the bonfires. In these times, Halloween Parties in the evenings are a compelling attraction, particularly for children.
The custom of trick-or-treating, in which children dress up in costume and solicit treats from neighbours, became popular in the United States in the early 20th century as Irish and Scottish communities revived the Old World custom of “guising,” in which a person would dress in costume and tell a joke, recite a poem, or perform some other trick in exchange for a piece of fruit or other treat. By 1950, trick-or-treating for candy had become one of Halloween’s most popular activities.
Many age old beliefs and superstitions persist though. People avoid crossing paths with black cats, afraid that they might bring us bad luck. This idea has its roots in the Middle Ages, when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into black cats.
Similarly, no one walks under ladders for the same reason. This superstition may have come from the ancient Egyptians, who believed that triangles were sacred but a more logical reason was that walking under a leaning ladder tends to be risky and unsafe.
And around Halloween, everyone avoids breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks in the road or spilling salt, all legacies of imported superstition.
Some Lesser-Known Rituals
But what about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that seem relegated to the background? Many of these obsolete rituals focused on the future instead of the past and on the living instead of the dead.
In particular, many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday—with luck, by next Halloween—be married. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it.
In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, the story went, represented the girl’s future husband. (In some versions of this legend, the opposite was true: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.)
Another tale had it that if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night she would dream about her future husband. Obviously smartly promoting a dish of that era!
Young women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husbands’ initials; or tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water, or even standing in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces.
These practices, advice, and admonitions curiously relied on the goodwill of the very same “spirits” whose presence the early Celts invoked so fervently and felt so keenly.
Triumph of Tradition- Conquest of Commerce
So while on the face of it, what appears a horrid and grotesque display exemplifying the primeval beliefs and trepidations, there also exists an understandable explanation.
The ‘trick-or-treat’ for instance that probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England, evolved as it was a return to the poor begging citizens who prayed for the family’s dead relatives. Originally, though, people would place bowls of food to keep ghosts away from their houses, and prevent them from attempting to enter their homes.
The distribution of food called ‘soul cakes’ was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-soiling,” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighbourhood and be given ale, food and money.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. It was believed that when ghosts came back to the earthly world, they would encounter those who left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. They dressed in attires and masks resembling what presumably the dead do, because it effectively confused the dead and provided an opportunity to evade recognition and detection so that those from the nether world don’t carry you back with them. A facile explanation but not entirely illogical.
Yet, Halloween eloquently and essentially signifies the American quest for consumerism and commercialization. While the festival was sought to be muted into a communal and gregarious event, underplaying the superstition as much as possible, its evolving magnitude and the many manifestations to make it a celebration of fun, gaiety and frolic, owe much to the temptation of American culture of turning traditional practice into businesses of profit.
So, while the superstition, per se, may seem to be underplayed, the celebration of superstition still is enjoyable, profitable and eminently encouraged.
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.