Skeletons dancing, black cats lurking, jack-o-lanterns grinning, witches flying, bats swooping the full moon, just some of the images we might think of when we think of Halloween. Halloween, distantly descended from the Celtic holiday Samhain, a holiday that is a mish mash of many traditions, some going back as far as the Roman harvest Festival of Pomona. Strong influences from the Church couldn't stamp out the old traditions so everything got blended, and in recent times popular culture and marketing have also greatly influence it. The Romans and the Celts would have a hard time recognizing their holidays.
Halloween as we celebrate it now, with trick or treating and movie marathons, costumes and decorated house is pretty much an American holiday. Known before the Civil War, but not really celebrated until later, and then not celebrated as a children's holiday at first, but as one for adults. Me thinks it's really for the kid in all of us.
From what I have read, and been told the horrific number of deaths, the great numbers of soldiers who were missing and presumed dead, their fate remained unknown, had a lot to do with the rise of ghost stories, the interest in ghosts. I cannot help but think that that the hopes that some day the son who went into battle would return, contributed to the rising interest in séances and other forms of spiritualism. And perhaps on the night when the veil between worlds was believed the thinnest, those who were lost would return.
As any paranormal buff will tell you, true ghosts do not wear sheets. the trick or treater with a sheet over their head much more closely resembles a corpse in its shoud, or as the shoud is also know "winding sheet".
Skeletons, cannot walk, talk, dance much less play the violin. the denizens of childhood nightmares. brought to life on the silver screen. what could be more frightening in a time before movie monsters. The faceless, unknown, remains that
dwell in each of us, the only thing we are sure that will be left of us.
And that brings us to cemeteries, the last resting place of our mortal remains. Cemeteries are creepy places, so it is hard for me to understand why anyone would haunt one. Our Victorian forbears had picnics in cemeteries, they also contributed some cool abandoned houses to our Halloween symbols. Given the choice I would prefer a large rambling Victorian mansion to a damp cemetery as a venue to haunt.
All Souls Day and all Saints days are set aside to honor the dead, to pray for the dead. The reason I think cemeteries and skeletons are appropriate symbols.
Perhaps Tricks and Treats does go back to souling, or may-be not. If you are unfamiliar with "Souling" it was/is the practice of giving small cakes to the poor who go begging door to door in exchange for prayers for the poor souls in Purgatory. A practice also connected with Christmas. In medieval and Rennaisance art , the dead are often represented as animated skeletons.
I wonder just how much of dressing up was so that one felt safe playing tricks and how much was related to the custom trading a song or the recitation of a poem or even an acrobatic feat for a treat.
The story goes that Jack the Lad made a deal with the devil, and then somehow got out of it only to find hew was cursed to roam the countryside at night with only a glowing ember in a hollowed out turnip for a lantern. A good story, and being as hard as rocks raw, turnips would make good containers for a glowing coal. When the colonists came to the Americas they found the pumpkin. And a pumpkin is ever so much easier to carve than a turnip or a rutabaga, I've tried. Children must have been much more adept with cutlery in those days'
Have you ever noticed how much a carved pumpkin resembles a skull? Of course not all of them, but the large round eyes, triangular nose and picket fence teeth, surely it could be. Though we think of jack-o-lanterns as a canvas for our creative expression, they were once used as lanterns, and they were also intended to be frightening.
Myself I have trouble finding a good reason to connect the image of a witch with Halloween. Owls, because of their mysterious and scary calls, the full moon because it certainly was a good thing to have the light of the moon while one was walking around collecting treat and playing tricks. But witches??? were they the first addition from popular culture? I think so.
And with them came their hearthside tools, the cauldron, broom, ladle and candles, Common and necessary items found in the home of any Goodwife, the same Goodwife who could be termed a witch. Be tortured and until she would confess to anything. Even their cats or dogs could be tortured, and killed, because they could be familiars. I can only guess that merely being black, made a cat more sinister. Doesn't that seem far fetched, that anyone could believe that.
For some reason, the Church fathers believed that the cat was a useless and lazy creature, and sanctioned the killing of all cats not just the black ones. The rat was revered for its industrious nature, one wonders what they would have done it they knew plague was carried by rats. But then in those days germs and viruses were unknown, but if the local woman who knew her herbs heal, it might have been reasoned she could also harm. And so could her cat. I leave you good readers to sort that out...