History of the modern Halloween. A Scholarly look from
Primeval terror (since
You think Halloween has pagan roots? Guess again. Two new histories of America's
second favorite holiday reveal the truth.
Editor's note: Salon presents a week of Halloween stories, beginning
with today's history of the holiday. Over the next four days, watch for articles
about the Salem Witch Trials, photographs of vintage Halloween costumes and, on
Oct. 31, our dream -- or, rather, nightmare -- playlist for a marathon of the
world's scariest movies.
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By Laura Miller
Oct. 28, 2002 |
Of all today's holidays,
Halloween seems like the most primeval. Its bats, witches, spooks, skeletons and
monsters surely indicate roots reaching back before the dawn of science and
Christianity; the whiff of prehistoric campfires clings to its sable robes.
Well, guess again.
Halloween has been
creeping up on Christmas to become the second biggest annual bonanza for U.S.
retailers, a Grim Reaper that harvests $6.8 billion per year in exchange for
candy, costumes, cards and party supplies. That success sets it up for the kind
of debunking that Christmas has endured recently, as historians have shown that
what we think of as time-honored Yuletide traditions are actually only about 100
years old. Likewise, as two new books document, the seemingly ancient customs of
Halloween turn out to be recent embellishments to a holiday that used to be a
pretty low-key affair. And forget those Transylvanian villagers and
superstitious medieval peasants -- Halloween is as American as the Fourth of
The basic elements of
an American Halloween -- pranks, treat-begging, masquerade and scary images --
aren't new, of course, but gathering them together and using them to celebrate a
holiday at the transition from October to November (from late summer to early
winter) is. As both Nicholas Rogers' "Halloween" and David J. Skal's
"Death Makes a Holiday" point out, those customs can be found
scattered here and there among various other holidays throughout history, yet
pinpointing the moment when they all came together to define Halloween as we
know it is a tricky matter indeed.
It's often said that
Halloween originates with the Celtic festival of Samhain (show off your pagan
cred by correctly pronouncing it as "sow-an"), but it's hard to
recognize the modern world's gleefully ghoulish festivities in what one scholar
called "an old pastoral and agricultural festival" that marked the
beginning of winter. Rogers, whose book is at its best when digging up the
anthropological forerunners of the holiday, says that "there is no hard
evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor
worship," although in Ireland it was thought to be a time when mischievous
spirits were particularly frisky. (The ancient Celts are rumored to have engaged
in human sacrifice in some of their rites -- not Samhain specifically -- but
those reports came from the conquering Romans and may have been propaganda.)
Samhain was a time of reckoning when livestock were slaughtered for the winter
stores and the days became short, cold and gloomy.
Despite the fact that
conservative Christians in America have protested the "pagan" revelry
of Halloween, the holiday owes its name and many of its trappings to
Christianity. "Halloween" derives from All Hallows Even, the night
before All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), which is in turn followed by All Souls' Day
(Nov. 2), an occasion for praying for and visiting with the dead. In Mexico, the
celebration of Los Dias de Los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead, closely
resembles the old All Souls rites of the Middle Ages. The most extravagantly
Catholic places had the grisliest practices: "In Naples," writes
Rogers, "the charnel houses containing the bones of the dead were opened on
All Souls' Day and decorated with flowers. Crowds thronged through them to visit
the bodies of their friends and relatives. Sometimes the cadavers were dressed
in robes and placed in niches along the walls." Leaving food out for the
spirits was a fairly common ritual, as it still is in Mexico today.
In the British Isles,
where bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics disrupted the handing
down of All Souls' traditions (less so in Ireland than in Scotland), the
Hallowtide holiday became more secular in the 16th century. In some places it
was entirely replaced by the anti-Catholic bonfire celebration of Guy
Fawkes Day on Nov. 5. (Rogers observes that Hallowtide was always the most
persistent in the areas where underground Catholic sentiments lingered.)
The anniversary of the famous Gunpowder Plot
The unfortunate conspirator Fawkes appears before his
November 5th marks the
anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, a conspiracy to blow up the English Parliament
and King James I
in 1605. On that day, the king prepared to open Parliament.
of English Catholics
It was intended to be the beginning of a great
uprising of English Catholics, who were distressed by the increased severity
of penal laws against the practice of their religion. The conspirators, who
began plotting early in 1604, expanded their number to a point where secrecy
The group included Robert Catesby, John Wright, and
Thomas Winter, the originators, Christopher Wright, Robert Winter, Robert
Keyes, Guy Fawkes, a soldier who had been serving in Flanders, Thomas Percy,
John Grant, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood, and Thomas
to Light by Anonymous Letter
Percy hired a cellar under the House of Lords, in
which 36 barrels of gunpowder, overlaid with iron bars and firewood, were
secretly stored. The conspiracy was brought to light through a mysterious
letter received by Lord Monteagle, a brother-in-law of Tresham, on October 26,
urging him not to attend Parliament on the opening day.
The 1st earl of Salisbury and others, to whom the
plot was made known, took steps leading to the discovery of the materials and
the arrest of Fawkes as he entered the cellar. Other conspirators, overtaken
in flight or seized afterward, were killed outright, imprisoned, or executed.
Bonfires in England
Among those executed was Henry
Garnett, the superior of the English Jesuits, who had known of the
conspiracy. While the plot was the work of a small number of men, it provoked
hostility against all English Catholics and led to an increase in the
harshness of laws against them. Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, is still
celebrated in England with fireworks
and bonfires, on which effigies of the conspirator are burned.
One of the reasons
Halloween, the American holiday, seems so un-Christian is that it appears to
have been primarily brought over by Protestant Scots who had abandoned the
religious element of the day while hanging on to its assorted folk traditions.
Skal, in his cultural history, writes that when the fledgling greeting card
industry of the 19th century first started churning out Halloween cards, they
featured such Scottish motifs as "tartan plaid borders, thistles and
heather, messages like 'Auld Lang Syne,' and the like." (The Scottish
connection was cemented by the fact that one of the richest surviving sources of
18th-century Halloween lore is Robert Burns' long
Is thought to be a
night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are abroad
on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the
fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary,.-R.B.
The following poem
will, by many readers, be well enough understood; but for the sake of
those who are unacquainted with the manners and traditions of the
country where the scene is cast, notes are added to give some account of
the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to
the peasantry in the west of Scotland. The passion of prying into
futurity makes a striking part of the history of human nature in its
rude state, in all ages and nations; and it may be some entertainment to
a philosophic mind, if any such honour the author with a perusal, to see
the remains of it among the more unenlightened in our own.-R.B.
Yes! let the rich deride, the proud disdain,
The simple pleasure of the lowly train;
To me more dear, congenial to my heart,
One native charm, than all the gloss of art.-Goldsmith.
Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans (2) dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the rout is ta'en,
Beneath the moon's pale beams;
There, up the Cove, (3) to stray an' rove,
Amang the rocks and streams
To sport that night;
(2) Certain little,
romantic, rocky, green hills, in the neighbourhood of the ancient seat
of the Earls of Cassilis.-R.B.
(3) A noted cavern
near Colean house, called the Cove of Colean; which, as well as Cassilis
Downans, is famed, in country story, for being a favorite haunt of
Amang the bonie winding banks,
Where Doon rins, wimplin, clear;
Where Bruce (4) ance rul'd the martial ranks,
An' shook his Carrick spear;
Some merry, friendly, countra-folks
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an' pou their stocks,
An' haud their Halloween
Fu' blythe that night.
(4) The famous
family of that name, the ancestors of Robert, the great deliverer of his
country, were Earls of Carrick.-R.B.
The lasses feat, an' cleanly neat,
Mair braw than when they're fine;
Their faces blythe, fu' sweetly kythe,
Hearts leal, an' warm, an' kin':
The lads sae trig, wi' wooer-babs
Weel-knotted on their garten;
Some unco blate, an' some wi' gabs
Gar lasses' hearts gang startin
Whiles fast at night.
Then, first an' foremost, thro' the kail,
Their stocks (5) maun a' be sought ance;
They steek their
een, and grape an' wale
For muckle anes, an' straught anes.
Poor hav'rel Will fell aff the drift,
An' wandered thro' the bow-kail,
An' pou't for want o' better shift
A runt was like a sow-tail
Sae bow't that night.
(5) The first
ceremony of Halloween is pulling each a "stock," or plant of
kail. They must go out, hand in hand, with eyes shut, and pull the first
they meet with: its being big or little, straight or crooked, is
prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their
spells-the husband or wife. If any "yird," or earth, stick to
the root, that is "tocher," or fortune; and the taste of the
"custock," that is, the heart of the stem, is indicative of
the natural temper and disposition. Lastly, the stems, or, to give them
their ordinary appellation, the "runts," are placed somewhere
above the head of the door; and the Christian names of the people whom
chance brings into the house are, according to the priority of placing
the "runts," the names in question.-R. B.
Then, straught or crooked, yird or nane,
They roar an' cry a' throu'ther;
The vera wee-things, toddlin, rin,
Wi' stocks out owre their shouther:
An' gif the custock's sweet or sour,
Wi' joctelegs they taste them;
Syne coziely, aboon the door,
Wi' cannie care, they've plac'd them
To lie that night.
The lassies staw frae 'mang them a',
To pou their stalks o' corn;(6)
But Rab slips out, an' jinks about,
Behint the muckle thorn:
He grippit Nelly hard and fast:
Loud skirl'd a' the lasses;
But her tap-pickle maist was lost,
Whan kiutlin in the fause-house (7)
Wi' him that night.
(6) They go to the
barnyard, and pull each, at three different times, a stalk of oats. If
the third stalk wants the "top-pickle," that is, the grain at
the top of the stalk, the party in question will come to the
marriage-bed anything but a maid.-R.B.
(7) When the corn is
in a doubtful state, by being too green or wet, the stack-builder, by
means of old timber, etc., makes a large apartment in his stack, with an
opening in the side which is fairest exposed to the wind: this he calls
The auld guid-wife's weel-hoordit nits (8)
Are round an' round dividend,
An' mony lads an' lasses' fates
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle couthie side by side,
And burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa wi' saucy pride,
An' jump out owre the chimlie
Fu' high that night.
(8) Burning the nuts
is a favorite charm. They name the lad and lass to each particular nut,
as they lay them in the fire; and according as they burn quietly
together, or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the
courtship will be.-R.B.
Jean slips in twa, wi' tentie e'e;
Wha 'twas, she wadna tell;
But this is Jock, an' this is me,
She says in to hersel':
He bleez'd owre her, an' she owre him,
As they wad never mair part:
Till fuff! he started up the lum,
An' Jean had e'en a sair heart
To see't that night.
Poor Willie, wi' his bow-kail runt,
Was brunt wi' primsie Mallie;
An' Mary, nae doubt, took the drunt,
To be compar'd to Willie:
Mall's nit lap out, wi' pridefu' fling,
An' her ain fit, it brunt it;
While Willie lap, and swore by jing,
'Twas just the way he wanted
To be that night.
Nell had the fause-house in her min',
She pits hersel an' Rob in;
In loving bleeze they sweetly join,
Till white in ase they're sobbin:
Nell's heart was dancin at the view;
She whisper'd Rob to leuk for't:
Rob, stownlins, prie'd her bonie mou',
Fu' cozie in the neuk for't,
Unseen that night.
But Merran sat behint their backs,
Her thoughts on Andrew Bell:
She lea'es them gashin at their cracks,
An' slips out-by hersel';
She thro' the yard the nearest taks,
An' for the kiln she goes then,
An' darklins grapit for the bauks,
And in the blue-clue (9) throws then,
Right fear't that night.
(9) Whoever would,
with success, try this spell, must strictly observe these directions:
Steal out, all alone, to the kiln, and darkling, throw into the
"pot" a clue of blue yarn; wind it in a new clue off the old
one; and, toward the latter end, something will hold the thread: demand,
"Wha hauds?" i.e., who holds? and answer will be returned from
the kiln-pot, by naming the Christian and surname of your future
An' ay she win't, an' ay she swat-
I wat she made nae jaukin;
Till something held within the pat,
Good Lord! but she was quaukin!
But whether 'twas the deil himsel,
Or whether 'twas a bauk-en',
Or whether it was Andrew Bell,
She did na wait on talkin
To spier that night.
Wee Jenny to her graunie says,
"Will ye go wi' me, graunie?
I'll eat the apple at the glass, (10)
I gat frae uncle Johnie:"
She fuff't her pipe wi' sic a lunt,
In wrath she was sae vap'rin,
She notic't na an aizle brunt
Her braw, new, worset apron
Out thro' that night.
(10) Take a candle
and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple before it, and some
traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the face of your
conjungal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping
over your shoulder.-R.B.
"Ye little skelpie-limmer's face!
I daur you try sic sportin,
As seek the foul thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune:
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight!
Great cause ye hae to fear it;
For mony a ane has gotten a fright,
An' liv'd an' died deleerit,
On sic a night.
"Ae hairst afore the Sherra-moor,
I mind't as weel's yestreen-
I was a gilpey then, I'm sure
I was na past fyfteen:
The simmer had been cauld an' wat,
An' stuff was unco green;
An' eye a rantin kirn we gat,
An' just on Halloween
It fell that night.
"Our stibble-rig was Rab M'Graen,
A clever, sturdy fallow;
His sin gat Eppie Sim wi' wean,
That lived in Achmacalla:
He gat hemp-seed, (11) I mind it weel,
An'he made unco light o't;
But mony a day was by himsel',
He was sae sairly frighted
That vera night."
(11) Steal out,
unperceived, and sow a handful of hemp-seed, harrowing it with anything
you can conveniently draw after you. Repeat now and then:
"Hemp-seed, I saw thee, hemp-seed, I saw thee; and him (or her)
that is to be my true love, come after me and pou thee." Look over
your left shoulder, and you will see the appearance of the person
invoked, in the attitude of pulling hemp. Some traditions say,
"Come after me and shaw thee," that is, show thyself; in which
case, it simply appears. Others omit the harrowing, and say: "Come
after me and harrow thee."-R.B.
Then up gat fechtin Jamie Fleck,
An' he swoor by his conscience,
That he could saw hemp-seed a peck;
For it was a' but nonsense:
The auld guidman raught down the pock,
An' out a handfu' gied him;
Syne bad him slip frae' mang the folk,
Sometime when nae ane see'd him,
An' try't that night.
He marches thro' amang the stacks,
Tho' he was something sturtin;
The graip he for a harrow taks,
An' haurls at his curpin:
And ev'ry now an' then, he says,
"Hemp-seed I saw thee,
An' her that is to be my lass
Come after me, an' draw thee
As fast this night."
He wistl'd up Lord Lennox' March
To keep his courage cherry;
Altho' his hair began to arch,
He was sae fley'd an' eerie:
Till presently he hears a squeak,
An' then a grane an' gruntle;
He by his shouther gae a keek,
An' tumbled wi' a wintle
Out-owre that night.
He roar'd a horrid murder-shout,
In dreadfu' desperation!
An' young an' auld come rinnin out,
An' hear the sad narration:
He swoor 'twas hilchin Jean M'Craw,
Or crouchie Merran Humphie-
Till stop! she trotted thro' them a';
And wha was it but grumphie
Asteer that night!
Meg fain wad to the barn gaen,
To winn three wechts o' naething; (12)
But for to meet the deil her lane,
She pat but little faith in:
She gies the
herd a pickle nits,
An' twa red cheekit apples,
To watch, while for the barn she sets,
In hopes to see Tam Kipples
That vera night.
(12) This charm must
likewise be performed unperceived and alone. You go to the barn, and
open both doors, taking them off the hinges, if possible; for there is
danger that the being about to appear may shut the doors, and do you
some mischief. Then take that instrument used in winnowing the corn,
which in our country dialect we call a "wecht," and go through
all the attitudes of letting down corn against the wind. Repeat it three
times, and the third time an apparition will pass through the barn, in
at the windy door and out at the other, having both the figure in
question, and the appearance or retinue, marking the employment or
station in life.-R.B.
She turns the key wi' cannie thraw,
An'owre the threshold ventures;
But first on Sawnie gies a ca',
Syne baudly in she enters:
A ratton rattl'd up the wa',
An' she cry'd Lord preserve her!
An' ran thro' midden-hole an' a',
An' pray'd wi' zeal and fervour,
Fu' fast that night.
They hoy't out Will, wi' sair advice;
They hecht him some fine braw ane;
It chanc'd the stack he faddom't thrice (13)
Was timmer-propt for thrawin:
He taks a swirlie auld moss-oak
For some black, grousome carlin;
An' loot a winze, an' drew a stroke,
Till skin in blypes cam haurlin
Aff's nieves that night.
(13) Take an
opportunity of going unnoticed to a "bear-stack," and fathom
it three times round. The last fathom of the last time you will catch in
your arms the appearance of your future conjugal yoke-fellow.-R.B.
A wanton widow Leezie was,
As cantie as a kittlen;
But och! that night, amang the shaws,
She gat a fearfu' settlin!
She thro' the whins, an' by the cairn,
An' owre the hill gaed scrievin;
Whare three lairds' lan's met at a burn, (14)
To dip her left sark-sleeve in,
Was bent that night.
(14) You go out, one
or more (for this is a social spell), to a south running spring, or
rivulet, where "three lairds' lands meet," and dip your left
shirt sleeve. Go to bed in sight of a fire, and hang your wet sleeve
before it to dry. Lie awake, and, some time near midnight, an
apparition, having the exact figure of the grand object in question,
will come and turn the sleeve, as if to dry the other side of it.-R.B.
Whiles owre a linn the burnie plays,
As thro' the glen it wimpl't;
Whiles round a rocky scar it strays,
Whiles in a wiel it dimpl't;
Whiles glitter'd to the nightly rays,
Wi' bickerin', dancin' dazzle;
Whiles cookit undeneath the braes,
Below the spreading hazel
Unseen that night.
Amang the brachens, on the brae,
Between her an' the moon,
The deil, or else an outler quey,
Gat up an' ga'e a croon:
Poor Leezie's heart maist lap the hool;
Near lav'rock-height she jumpit,
But mist a fit, an' in the pool
Out-owre the lugs she plumpit,
Wi' a plunge that night.
In order, on the clean hearth-stane,
The luggies (15) three are ranged;
An' ev'ry time great care is ta'en
To see them duly changed:
Auld uncle John, wha wedlock's joys
Sin' Mar's-year did desire,
Because he gat the toom dish thrice,
He heav'd them on the fire
In wrath that night.
(15) Take three
dishes, put clean water in one, foul water in another, and leave the
third empty; blindfold a person and lead him to the hearth where the
dishes are ranged; he (or she) dips the left hand; if by chance in the
clean water, the future (husband or) wife will come to the bar of
matrimony a maid; if in the foul, a widow; if in the empty dish, it
foretells, with equal certainty, no marriage at all. It is repeated
three times, and every time the arrangement of the dishes is altered.-R.B.
Wi' merry sangs, an' friendly cracks,
I wat they did na weary;
And unco tales, an' funnie jokes-
Their sports were cheap an' cheery:
Till butter'd sowens, (16) wi' fragrant lunt,
Set a' their
Syne, wi' a social glass o' strunt,
They parted aff careerin
Fu' blythe that night.
(16) Sowens, with
butter instead of milk to them, is always the Halloween Supper.-R.B.
According to Skal, the "genteel" Victorian
Halloween couldn't be more different from today's rowdy incarnation. The main
tradition the Scots associated with the holiday was fortune telling, used for
the most part to predict who the participants were going to marry. In some ways,
the Victorian Halloween resembled Valentine's Day. People stayed home and played
divinatory games to glean information about future spouses. Putting two nuts in
a fire to see if they jumped apart when they popped (signifying an impending
break-up) was a practice Burns wrote about. Others involved a blindfolded person
dipping his or her hand into one of three bowls of water, apple bobbing or a
young woman peeling an apple in front of a mirror in order to glimpse the image
of her future husband in the reflection. (Maybe that's the origin of the scary
"Bloody Mary" game American children play by reciting the ghoulish
Mary's name nine times in front of a mirror in a dark room, daring her to come
and get them.)
now an indispensable Halloween motif, didn't emerge until the first decade of
the 20th century, although the Scots had a folk tradition of carving lanterns
out of turnips -- a much harder job with a much smaller vegetable. Those
lanterns were linked to a legendary figure named Jack who was so incorrigible
that neither Heaven nor Hell would have him, and so he was condemned to walk the
earth until Judgment Day, toting his turnip lamp. Like the Will-o-the-Wisp (aka
marsh gas) he liked to use his lantern to lure passersby to their doom in swamps
and bogs. He wasn't particularly linked to Halloween until the dawn of the 20th
century, and no one seems to know how pumpkins came to replace turnips.
occasionally associated with prankish antics on the part of young boys and men,
but the custom of demanding food or money, what Rogers refers to as
"enforced charity," was more common at Christmas. Recent histories of
Christmas have detailed how many of the homebodyish Yuletide traditions we now
embrace were cooked up by wealthy and middle-class citizens who were sick of
being shaken down by the rowdy poor during the month of December. New York had
an early 20th century street festival in which "ragamuffin" children
dressed up in costumes and performed antics for shopkeepers and other affluent
adults in exchange for money, but it was Thanksgiving, not Halloween. The Macy's
Thanksgiving Day Parade, launched in 1924, spelled the end of the ragamuffin
racket, but in their heyday the revelers filled Times Square.
As Christmas and
Thanksgiving became cozy domestic holidays, it seems, all the mischief and
misrule gravitated to the formerly homely Halloween. Both Rogers and Skal quote
a late 19th century historian who lamented "the spirit of rowdyism"
that "has in a measure superseded the kindly old customs" and the
vandalism and racket generated by "gangs of hoodlums" in the streets.
While many European cultures had a traditional "season
of misrule" -- a festival in which the ordinary rules of decorum were
overturned and figures
of authority were mocked -- it usually happened in November or December as a
prelude to the Christmas observances. Those rites sometimes involved costumes
and processions (Rogers quotes a contemporary description of a troupe parading
through the churchyards with "their Hobby horses and other monsters
shirmishyng amongst the throng ... with such a confused noise that no man can
heare his own voice"). By the 1920s, Halloween had become an occasion for
adults to attend stylish (but still not macabre) masquerade parties and for
children to wreak mischief.
By the beginning of December, writes Columella,
the farmer should have finished his autumn planting. Now, at the time of the
winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian calendar), Saturnus, the god of
seed and sowing, was honored with a festival. The Saturnalia officially
was celebrated on December 17 (a.d. XVI Kal. Ian.), midway between two other
agricultural festivals: the Consualia, which celebrated the opening of
the granaries and was in honor of Consus, god of the granary, and the Opalia,
honoring Ops, who personified abundance and the fruits of the earth, and was
the consort of Saturn.
In the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia
was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were
performed. Saturn, himself, was identified with Kronos, and sacrificed to
according to Greek ritual, with the head uncovered. The Temple of Saturn, the
oldest temple recorded by the pontifices, was dedicated on the Saturnalia,
and the woolen bonds which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue within
were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god.
It also was a festival day. After sacrifice at
the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217
BC (there also may have been a lectisternium, a banquet for the god in
which its image is placed in attendance, as if a guest). Afterwards, according
to Macrobius, the celebrants shouted "Io, Saturnalia!"
In Cicero's time, the Saturnalia lasted
seven days, from December 17-23. Augustus attempted to limit the holiday to
three days, so the civil courts would not have to be closed any longer than
necessary, and Caligula extended it to five. Still, everyone seems to have
continued to celebrate for a full week.
The Saturnalia was the most popular
holiday of the Roman year. Catullus describes it as "the best of
days," and Seneca complains that the "whole mob has let itself go in
pleasures." Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while
the rest of the household celebrated. Cicero fled to the countryside. It was
an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts,
particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning
light after the solstice, and small earthenware figurines (sigillaria).
Martial wrote Xenia and Apophoreta for the Saturnalia.
Both were published in December and intended to accompany the "guest
gifts" which were given at that time of year.
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed
and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were
permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less
formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pilleus,
a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom
of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were
treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on
at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been
ushered in by the god.
This equality was temporary, of course; and
Petronius speaks of an impudent slave being asked at some other time of the
year whether it was December yet. Dio writes of Aulus Plautius, who was to
lead the conquest of Britain, cajoling his troops. But they hesitated,
"indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of
the known world." Only when they were entreated by a former slave
dispatched by Claudius did they relent, shouting "Io, Saturnalia."
(If a time of merriment, the season also was an occasion for murder. Commodus
was strangled in his bath on New Year's eve, and Caracalla plotted to murder
his brother during the Saturnalia.)
At the end of the first century AD, Statius
still could proclaim: "For how many years shall this festival abide!
Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and
father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the
world, it shall continue." And the Saturnalia did continue to be
celebrated as Brumalia (from bruma, winter solstice) down to the
Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century AD, its rituals had
become absorbed in the celebration of Christmas.
the Lord of Misrule...
The Lord of Misrule is one of the lost characters of
the riotous Medieval Christmas celebration. Sometime in November, it was
customary among the European peasantry to draw lots for the title of Lord of
Misrule. Wearing a paper crown and motley garments, the Lord of Misrule turned
the ordinary rules on their head for his appointed time. He was given full
licence to enjoy whatever pleasures he desired, and to lead the others down
the merry path of dalliance and delight. One can only imagine what sorts of
delight prevailed but certainly the kind that comes in a flagon must have been
The crowning of the Lord of Misrule is a tradition
extending back into ancient times, and was a feature of Roman Saturnalia.
Records from as late as the 3rd century suggest that the merry reign of the
king of the revels came to a rather unjolly end when the chosen one was
unceremoniously sacrificed on the altar of Saturn. In the Middle Ages, the
tradition was revived in a more moderate form, most sacrificial elements
removed or replaced by the less barbarous practice of burning the god in
A remnant of this ancient custom clings to the
current practice of pulling Christmas crackers: after the muffled explosion of
the cracker, the prizes are generally revealed to be a joke, a charm, and the
paper crown of the Lord of Misrule.
pranks got so rambunctious that householders concocted the idea of bribing the
miscreants to leave their property alone. A woman named Doris Hudson wrote an
article for American Home magazine in 1939 that, according to Skal, is "the
first time the expression 'trick or treat' is used in a mass-circulation
periodical in the United States." (Cooper, who began hosting her Halloween
open house in the midst of the Depression, said some of the "tiny
lads" devoured their treats "with too much relish and nearly broke my
heart." By all accounts, Depression-era pranking often took on the aspect
of class war.)
The 1950s and early '60s were the Golden Age of trick or
treating, but no sooner had the new tradition taken hold than commentators were
bemoaning the loss of inventive tricking and condemning the soliciting of candy
as "a rehearsal for consumership without a rationale," to quote one
sociologist. Still, Halloween pranks never entirely vanished and that's not
necessarily a good thing. Rogers, one of those academics who is always hoping to
find something "transgressive" or "subversive" to laud,
describes seasons of misrule as a time when "flagrant violations of
community norms might be addressed" and "rough justice" meted
out. A friend of mine who grew up in a racially mixed urban neighborhood in the
1970s testifies that his Halloween often involved a lot of roughness and
precious little justice. Asked what he associates with the holiday -- which he
hates -- he says, "Eggs. Eggs and fear."
It was really only in
the 1960s and '70s that macabre stories and films became firmly attached to
Halloween. Until then, for example, movie studios didn't make a point of
releasing their horror or monster films around Oct. 31. Skal, whose book excels
at outlining the popular blossoming of Halloween over the past 60 years,
observes that "Frankenstein" premiered on Thanksgiving in 1931. By the
early 1960s, Universal had learned the advantage of tying in their franchised
characters -- Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man -- to
Halloween, but the holiday itself didn't appear very often in films until John
Carpenter's groundbreaking "Halloween" initiated the slasher film
In the 1970s, the scary
side of Halloween also reemerged with reports of candy tampering and widespread,
media-fueled paranoia about razors in apples and other sadistic
"tricks." These turned out to be urban legends. The sole documented
fatality from candy-poisoning was an 8-year-old killed by his own father, who
was trying to collect on a life insurance policy. Likewise, the rise of
Halloween celebrations in America's gay districts, with their fantabulous
costumes and sybaritic processions, were soon troubled by visits from
belligerent gay bashers looking for their own sinister notion of a good time.
Both Rogers and Skal
decry the recent taming of Halloween by such domestic mavens as Martha Stewart,
whose television program and magazine each October are packed with recipes for
spider-shaped cupcakes, instructions for crafting ghostly party decorations and
tips on elaborately rigging out your ordinarily impeccable house as an equally
impressive haunted mansion. Skal rails against Halloween Martha-style as a
holiday "Perfectly Under Control," her monogrammed jack-o'-lantern an
example of "boomerish narcissism" and "a pure embodiment of
self-celebration with no connection whatsoever to any known form of communal
holiday observance." The modern history of Halloween seems to swing back
and forth this way, from charming fun to violent chaos. It's the most bipolar of
The most original parts
of Skal's book concern the history of haunted houses -- not the literally
haunted kind, but the ones concocted to amuse one's friends and neighbors. Using
an Angeleno horror movie buff named Bob Burns as an example, Skal traces the
evolution of "yard haunters," the Halloween equivalent of those people
who erect elaborate Christmas light displays. One Rochelle Santopaulo, who
founded the Halloween
Global Alliance and edits its magazine, Happy Halloween, says yard haunters
are a cross-country folk-art phenomenon, but most of them had no idea that other
Americans shared their peculiar passion until Santopaulo informed them they were
part of a nationwide "movement."
Another sort of haunted
house, the kind that invites paying customers to walk through a maze of spooky
and grisly scenes, began in the 1970s as fund-raising devices for charities like
the Jaycees and quickly spawned a profession. Who knew there was an entire trade
Attraction, devoted to this subject? According to Skal, it's "a glossy
quarterly magazine" with articles explaining how to convincingly simulate
severed heads and ads offering "full haunted-house environments for
resale," complete with such interior props as "Fireplace, Piano,
Living Wall, Dancing Ghost, Canopy Bed with Body, Storm Window, Kitchen Cabinet,
Stove, Refrigerator, Meat Locker, Dining Table with Chairs, Metal Cage, Boiler
and Pipes, Lab Tables and Bodies, 8-foot Mechanical Spider, Sacrifice Table with
Body, Volcano and Pneumatic Devil."
There's something about
this practical list of bogus nightmares (I'd like to get a look at that
"Living Wall") that strikes me as quintessentially Halloween. Armed
with this kit, anyone can take an ordinary, new house and convert it into a
scary, fake "old" house -- just as the sequels to the slasher film
"Halloween" cobbled together a bunch of ersatz legends about Samhain
to explain the murderous rampaging of its masked villain -- or, for that matter,
as we disguise our suburban homes as "Tudor" cottages and decorate
them with new furniture that's been "distressed" to make it look old,
or buy new jeans deftly faded to make them look worn. Halloween looks ancient,
primal even, despite its relative youth. And that may be the most American thing
about it of all.