A Scary Amount More
By: Josh O'Shea, Young Adult Librarian
We all have images of what Halloween is supposed to be in our minds. Most of us think of bats, cats, witches, frothing cauldrons, attempts to scare anyone we can, and haunted houses. Trying to get to the root of Halloween is one of the most dizzying escapades we can begin. What we think is “normal” or “common sense” often has its own tradition spiraled up with other traditions or practices.
A good place to start is with the Celtic festival Samhain. Samhain was one of two holidays that the Celtic world moved on. It was the beginning of the “dark time,” when daylight lessened constantly until Beltane, the beginning of spring. The first obstacle is to understand that the Celts didn’t have a written language. We have artifacts from the Bronze age, like the Wandsworth shield boss at the British Museum, that help us put together a story of Celtic culture. The artifacts we find suggest Celts had an oral tradition where knowledge and practice was communicated verbally and “stored” in the mind. Druids, not witches, were the magic users of the Celtic world and druids felt writing was an abomination.
In American culture, we tend to think of witches as the primary “magic users.” While witches seem to be universally associated with Halloween, that was not always the case. For a long time, Europeans, and the British in particular, didn’t have much of a problem with witches. They were healers and herbalists who often lived by themselves in the woods. Witches didn’t get associated with Halloween until the 1400s in England. It became popular to associate witchcraft with satanic practices and consorting with devils and evil spirits (why this happened is another story).
Two early Christian holidays, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, also appear to have roots in our modern form of Halloween. All Saints Day celebrated Saints, who were people in a special category in Roman Catholicism. All Souls Day was a special time to pray for dead people to be released from Purgatory into Paradise. As Christianity swept over Europe, it layered Christian traditions on top of existing traditions. This layering happened to different extents in different places. For instance, when Christianity spread to South America, it joined with the aboriginal cultures. This layering produced Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) which parallels our Halloween. Similar to European and American tradition, skeletons play a large part in the holiday. While our skeletons convey fear, skeletons for the Day of the Dead celebrate family who have died and whose spirits are a little closer to the living on that day. This actually is close to some Celtic traditions where the separation between the living world and the dead world becomes thin.
Our modern culture plays with these traditions and images, often giving them connotations that are new. American Halloween has an obsession with gory violence; early manifestations didn’t. It’s easy to think we know all about something, or perceive we know all about its origins. It’s important to research what we know and be open to learning. When we dig into a subject, what often happens is we find complexity, a varied history, and many reasons leading to what we see and experience today. There is often more — a scary amount more — to our the story than we realized.
This is barely the beginning of what we find when we delve into the history and cultural developments of Halloween. Start your own exploration with help from these resources.
The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic by Owen Davies
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History by Lesley Bannatyne
Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers
Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal
The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell
Myths and Legends of the Celts by James MacKillop
Day of the Dead: A Passion for Life by Mary Andrade
The Day of the Dead: Día de los Muertos by Ward Albro