Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Culture of Halloween

The French have declared Halloween dead. The major Parisian dailies Le Monde and Le Parisien reported this week the Halloween holiday has been "pretty much buried". In the latter years of the 20th century, the festival caught on in France with costume parties and trick-or-treating. Its recent demise is linked to a rise in anti-Americanism as major US brands such as McDonalds, Coke and Disney use pumpkins and other Halloween paraphernalia in their advertising. A French group called “Collectif Non a Halloween” (No To Halloween Collective) was set up to launch a boycott of the event. But the real culprits lie on their side of the Pond. Halloween is an old Celtic festival imported into the US by Irish immigrants after the potato famine of the 1840s.

1 November is the pagan festival of “Samhain” (pronounced sow’-en). It is a cross-quarter day, a day falling approximately halfway between a solstice and an equinox. The other three cross-quarter days are Imbolc (at the beginning of February), Beltane (Mayday), and Lunasa (August). The Celtic calendar was solar and lunar so the four festivals would have been celebrated at the nearest full moon. Like the other cross-quarter days, Samhain was co-opted by Christianity. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV replaced the pagan festival of the dead and 1 November is now known as All Saints Day. The day was also known as All Hallows Day from the Middle English word ‘halwen’ meaning holy. Hence the evening before is “Hallow e’en”.

The Irish word for Halloween is “Oíche Shamhna”, the night or eve of Samhain. It is the night before the start of winter and a time to take stock of the herd and grain supplies for the cold and barren days ahead. The feast celebrates the final harvest and is also dedicated to the dead. Villagers would gather together on Samhain and light a great fire on which they would throw the bones of slaughtered livestock. The Halloween “bone fire” (or bonfire) remains a tradition in Ireland. In 17th century England, the bonfire and other Halloween traditions were moved five days later to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, a group of conspirators angered by King James’ refusal to give equal rights to Catholics, planted gunpowder under the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes, an explosives expert with military experience, was hired to plant the powder. On 5 November, the plan was leaked and Fawkes was arrested and confessed to the crime. The date became a day of thanksgiving and was a fatal blow to Catholicism in England.

Celtic Ireland and Scotland held on to their Halloween traditions. In pagan days, villagers would dress up in “ghoulish” costumes and parade through the night in order to frighten away evil spirits. In the middle ages, people would travel from door to door singing prayers and carols for the dead in return for food. It was called “souling and people would beg for soul cakes (flat, square breads). In return they promised to offer up prayers for any dead family members. Though it probably evolved with Irish immigrants, the tradition was not noted in the US until the turn of the 20th century. Children would dress up as ghosts and tour the neighbourhood looking for candy or money. The term ‘trick or treat’ first appeared in print in 1934. It was deeply unpopular and often viewed as extortion - the "trick" part was a threat to play a prank on the victims. But by the 1950s it was firmly established in US culture with trick or treating in a Donald Duck cartoon and a campaign to raise funds for UNICEF.

Other popular ancient Irish Halloween traditions were bobbing for apples and wearing masks. Apples are placed in a large basin of water and children, sometimes blindfolded, try to catch one with their teeth. Apples were associated with gods of fertility; the first person to catch an apple would be the next one to marry. The wearing of masks is an old European tradition in times of drought. People believed the demons that had brought their misfortune would be frightened off by the hideous masks. When they started to go out at night souling, singers would wear masks to keep from being recognised.

The pumpkin is an American variant on the Halloween tradition. In 1584, French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence region of North America. In his encounters with native Americans, he reported finding "gros melons". The name was translated into English as "pompions," which has since evolved into the modern "pumpkin". Planted in May or June (in the Northern Hemisphere), they take three to four months to grow and are picked in October when they turn bright orange. The Irish and Scots had the legend of Jack O’Lantern, a myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack". The story goes that Stingy Jack convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin so that Jack could buy a drink. He eventually freed the devil on condition that he would not claim his soul. When Stingy Jack finally died, the Devil keeps his side of the bargain. However God has reservations accepting such a tricky character in Heaven. As a result, Stingy Jack is forced to roam the earth by night with only a burning coal to light his way. The Irish carved scary faces into potatoes and turnips to ward away Jack O’Lantern. They brought their tradition to the US. There they found “gros melons” were perfect making lanterns.

Which takes us back to the French. While Le Monde is worried about the cultural impact of Cartier’s pumpkins, France has been celebrating the ideas at the very heart of Halloween for centuries. The three days between 31 October to 2 November have traditionally been spent, especially by older generations, visiting cemeteries, honouring saints, and attending religious services. Family reunions honour the dead. Children beg for money to buy cakes at Madonna shrines. November 1 is called La Toussaint and is a public holiday in France. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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