October is upon us and that means it’s that time when the leaves start turning red and gold, days get shorter, and nights get colder. It’s a time where brisk winds bring upon noises you’re not sure you’re really hearing, and where shadows dance around with your fears. With October comes one of the very best holidays, in my opinion, Halloween. Halloween is the one day of the year where everybody confronts their fears and fantasies by dressing up in costumes, sneaking off into the night, and performing mischief. It is also a time where mother nature sets the perfect mood for you to sit down with a scary book or horror film. Likewise, kids get to experience the ultimate of sugar rushes as they go door-to-door collecting gumballs, candies, and gelled popcorn creations. Like most holidays, Halloween did not just spring to life in America; it came to us through thousands of years of growth and change, passing from culture to culture, from the Ancient Irish to the Roman Empire and several others all putting their stamp on it.
For the most part, Halloween was believed to start as part of the Celtic religion’s New Year celebration, Samhain, which occurred on November 1st. It was on the day before Samhain, that the Celtic people believed the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became paper thin and blurred. During this time the ghosts of the dead could return and once again walk the face of the earth. To ward off the spirits, Druids would build huge sacred bonfires and offer sacrifices of corn and animals to the deities. Citizens, likewise, would dress in costumes of animal heads and skins to hide themselves from the spirits. People would also burn effigies depicting their fears, and since the reality boundary was so thin, they felt that it was a prime time for fortune-telling.
In 43 AD, the Roman Empire finished conquering the lands of the Celtic people. Always good for taking someone else’s traditions and combining them with their own, Rome, decided to merge Samhain with two of their own festivals. The first was called Feralia, which usually occurred mid-October. Romans usually took this day to formally commemorate the passing of the dead. The other festival they merged Samhain with was Pomona, a day dedicated to the honor of the goddess of fruits and trees (it is widely believed that the tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween came from Roman tradition).
When the Roman Empire fell, the holiday that would eventually come to be known as Halloween, once again evolved, this time thanks to the Roman Catholic Church. Early on in the Church’s history they started a day in mid-October to celebrate the saints and martyr’s. Eventually that celebration would move to November 1st and become known as All Saints’ Day; a day to honor the dead. The day before (October 31st) would come to be known as All Hallows’ Eve, and similar to Samhain, people would celebrate with bonfires and costumes. In fact, in France during the 14th and 15th centuries, the tradition of dressing up, evolved into a reenactment of a custom called the Danse Macabre (The Dance of Death) which started during the plague known as Black Death, wherein party-goers would dress up so that demons could not tell who they were.
In the mid-19th century, Halloween, came to America with British and Irish immigrants. One tradition had the adults of families go door to door asking for food or money and people gave gifts because it was thought to be good luck and kept spirits from performing mischief. Later in the early to middle part of the 20th century, Halloween became the secular community-based holiday that we know today, where kids go door-to-door asking for treats and threatening tricks, families display Jack ‘O Lanterns, and both grownups and children dress up in costume and attend parties and dances.
In celebration of the spirit of Halloween, you can find frightful, horrifying, and haunting tales both true and fictitious on the Monthly Book Display.
Continue reading “The Origins of Halloween: Terror on Display at the Library”