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Halloween History

Halloween Good


History of the modern Halloween. A Scholarly look from Salon. com 

Primeval terror (since 1929)
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 July.

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.)

Guy Fawkes Day
The anniversary of the famous Gunpowder Plot

Guy Fawkes amd King James I. Source:
The unfortunate conspirator Fawkes appears before his intended victim.


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.

Uprising 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 was impossible.

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 Bates.

Brought 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.

Fireworks, 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 poem "Halloween.")


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 fairies.-R.B.

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 a "fause-house."-R.B.

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 spouse.-R.B.

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 gabs a-steerin;
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.)

The jack-o'-lantern, 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.

Hallowtide was 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.

 Crowning 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 especially indulged.

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 effigy.

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.


Eventually Halloween 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 genre.

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 all holidays.

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 magazine, Haunted 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.


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