The knotty story of Halloween

The knotty story of Halloween

Halloween is an increasingly contentious occasion. Devotees claim that celebrating it is liberating and romantic — an opportunity to dress up and make merry. Yet critics complain that the festival is a glaring example of the perils of forced jollity, an excuse for morbid exhibitionism, a grotesque pageant that has been shamelessly commercialized. Some even see it as the embodiment of evil.

It is common now to argue that the rituals of Halloween have become excessive, and those hostile to them voice both a disdain for revellers’ bad taste and a scorn for their willingness to trivialise the macabre. Christian commentators frequently identify the grisly manner in which revellers mark the occasion with a reversion to heathen practices and preoccupations. They see in it a renewal of mysticism and superstition, as well as a wilful blurring of the distinction between right and wrong.

Turning to the OED, we read that Halloween is a shortened form of All-Hallow-Even and that

In the Old Celtic calendar the year began on 1st November, so that the last evening of October was “old-year’s night”, the night of all the witches, which the Church transformed into the Eve of All Saints.

Here, in miniature, is the knotty story of Halloween: it is an occasion related to a Christian festival, but it has a pre-Christian significance, coloured by witchy mystique.

Amid the OED’s wealth of pertinent illustrative material there is a citation that touches on this theme, from Canadian newspaper the Ottawa Citizen: ‘The over-celebration of Halloween is part of the repaganization of our culture.’ In the original piece, published on 1 November 2006, columnist David Warren went on to comment that ‘All Hallows’ Eve was formerly the shadow of an important event in the Christian year: the Feast of All Saints.’ The key word here is shadow. For Warren, the shadow has become the substance of the season, and the feast that throws this shadow has been pushed to the margin. This is a recurrent theme in condemnation of the modern cult of Halloween: that by prizing darkness it misses out on enlightenment. But, as we shall see, the truth is less clear-cut.

For both its lovers and its critics, Halloween is strongly associated with the supernatural. We can discern this, for instance, in the OED’s entry for the Scots verb stroan, meaning ‘to urinate’, which includes a snippet from a series of sketches by John Service, a Scot who emigrated to Australia in the 1880s and chose to celebrate his native Ayrshire in fiction: ‘Man, do ye no ken … that on Halloween the de[v]il stroans on the haws?’ Service’s image of the devil marking his territory and contaminating wild fruit (the hawthorns and their berries) is a small but telling example of the common perception of Halloween as a time of sinister visitations and pollution.

Among the OED’s citations under Halloween itself is an excerpt from a short story by none other than Julian Hawthorne, son of the much better known Nathaniel Hawthorne. It appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1883, and the quoted passage reads as follows: ‘Halloween is the carnival-time of disembodied spirits.’ If we return to Hawthorne’s story, we see that his narrator is here recalling an episode in which he fell over and, as he picked himself up, heard laughter:

Of course I must have been deceived; … my imagination had played me a trick, or else there was more truth than poetry in the tradition that Halloween is the carnival-time of disembodied spirits.

Taken in context, the passage is more interesting, as it touches not only on the belief that Halloween is a time when ghosts run riot, but also on the popular scepticism about this. Hawthorne’s story, ‘Ken’s Mystery’, is in fact a portrait of a young American beguiled by a gorgeous Irish vampire whose astonishing visitation leaves him permanently scarred. Describing himself as ‘too much amazed to be conscious of amazement’, he provides posterity with a phrase that sums up the potential for Halloween’s dark magic to obliterate one’s judgement.

We find a much less spiritually charged perspective on the occasion in this OED citation from a 1947 issue of The American Home:

The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, “Trick or Treat!”.

Just as festive, though prosaic, is this invitation in a 1994 issue of children’s magazine Fast Forward: ‘Want to make your Halloween party extra spooklicious?’

The contrast between the Hawthorne quotation and the two that follow is instructive: in the twentieth century it became common to relish the ghostly atmosphere that once made Halloween feel so unsettling. For instance, many popular films have exploited the symbolism of the occasion, often focusing on adolescent characters who appreciate the opportunities it affords for testing authority and the boundaries of their identity. The Halloween franchise, which began with John Carpenter’s 1978 film of that name, is an obvious example, but the genre includes a vast number of other releases, including such disparate fare as the Scary Movie franchise, Donnie Darko, The Exorcist, Monsters, Inc. and E.T.

The Halloween movie is an essentially American phenomenon, and in America objections to Halloween are especially likely to be grounded in religious beliefs and an aversion to all things deathly or demonic. To illustrate necrophobia (‘A horror of death or anything associated with death’), the OED cites a piece from Cosmopolitan magazine in 1994:

This particular holiday [Halloween] creates anxiety for the thirty-five million Americans with wicaphobia, … necrophobia, and demophobia.

That abbreviated list is a useful indication of a modern concern highly relevant to the controversy around the celebration of Halloween: a readiness to diagnose and particularise anxieties, to seek and specify the causes of fear, and in doing so to enshrine the objects of fear.

Yet hostility to Halloween often has no spiritual element whatsoever. Sometimes it is just a reaction to antisocial behaviour — and to the capacity for minor forms of delinquency to beget major ones. Consecutive citations under trick or treat, both from the Baltimore Sun, convey the impression of a retreat from regarding the occasion as a licence for juvenile misdemeanour; in 1950 the paper encourages parental indulgence (‘So let the kids go out tonight and have a grand time with their masquerading and trick-or-treating’), but in 1954 its position is the opposite — ‘Now that the “Trick or Treat” season is upon us, let us hope that thoughtful parents will discourage the practice.’ One wonders, inevitably, what happened in Baltimore between 1950 and 1954. Ironically, it seems that the tone of trick-or-treating became milder and more Disneyfied during this period, but the practice grew more widespread.

A more macabre image of seasonal wrongdoing appears in the entry for X-ray, in the form of an amusingly grim snippet, from Nicholson Baker’s memoir U & I, about ‘Driving to a medium-security prison to have our children’s Halloween candy X-rayed for razor blades.’ This is a reference to the urban legend that at Halloween disgruntled adults taint sweets by adding poison or sharp objects, in order to harm trick-or-treating children who invade their privacy. The phenomenon is conveniently summarised in the title of a paper presented to the American Folklore Society in 1985: ‘Razor Blades in Apples: The Proto-Legend That Is Changing Halloween in America.’

The connection between Halloween and apples is a deep one. The apple’s symbolism is protean, to say the least; it is associated with the harvest, fertility, youthfulness, the Roman goddess Pomona (who is linked with orchards and fruitfulness), love, good luck and immortality, as well as with the biblical forbidden fruit, temptation, seduction and sin. Although the image of the Halloween apple has been tarnished by offences of the kind to which Nicholson Baker alludes, it remains a powerful symbol of the season, and there is a long, rather murky history of divining prophetic significance in the peel, core and pips of apples. As for the candy apple or toffee apple we encounter at Halloween, it is sometimes said to have been the result of an accident. It’s alleged that in 1908 a New Jersey confectioner, William W. Kolb, was experimenting with a novel type of red cinnamon candy and dipped some apples in the mixture he’d concocted; he displayed them in his shop window, and demand for them was instant.

There are several OED citations that suggest the pomonic pleasures of the season. An innocent and indeed rather pedestrian enjoyment is apparent in a citation from a Liverpool local newspaper in 2005: ‘Welcome [Halloween] party guests with an array of orange-glowing pumpkin lanterns. Creating them is now easy with the three-piece pumpkin carving set.’ Another strand of fairly mild Halloween tradition is apparent in an apple-laden citation from Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959):

In Liverpool Hallowe’en is known as “Duck Apple”, in Newcastle “Dookie-Apple Night”, in Swansea “Apple and Candle Night”, in Pontypool “Bob Apple” or “Crab Apple Night”, and in Durham “Nut Crack Night’’.

A more anarchic spirit is evident in the entry for TP-ing (the practice of decorating a building with toilet paper streamers). The illustrative material points up its associations with Halloween and references a 1980s work of cultural anthropology: ‘Pranks, pillow fights, TPing … and other forms of relatively harmless activities have served this function on college campuses for years.’ The ‘function’ in question is the release of tension, a ‘deviance’ that acts as a ‘safety valve’.

Today there is a keen concern on college campuses about the limits of such deviance, not least the potentially racist nature of outlandish Halloween costumes and make-up. In 2015, when the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale University sent out an email urging an embargo on ‘culturally unaware and insensitive’ costumes that could offend minority students, it drew a sharp response from one of the university’s psychology lecturers, Erika Christakis, who was also Associate Master of the campus’s Silliman College. ‘Is there no room anymore,’ she wondered, ‘for a child or young person to be … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? … American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.’ A vocal section of Yale’s student population mounted a campaign against Christakis and her husband Nicholas, the Master of Silliman College, arguing that the provocative costumes worn by some of their fellow students were symptomatic of Yale’s ‘history of exclusion’.

Amid such furore, we are acutely aware of what Halloween entails. A Guardian editorial in 2015 asserted that ‘Halloween in Britain is a completely fraudulent festival… No one dresses up on the day for theological reasons, or thinks of the dead as they wait for the doorbell to ring.’ Yet those that denounce it ‘form part of the fun. They have put on the costume of creepy killjoys’. Even if we balk at the language of this piece, it captures the degree to which anti-Halloween rhetoric has become one of the season’s traditions. Halloween feels like a conflict zone, dense with political argument and emotive hyperbole.

But most people are no more than dimly aware of the origins of Halloween. The historian Ronald Hutton, discussing assertions typically made about the festival, quotes a leaflet used by the British Pagan Federation to defend it from Christian criticism. Its anonymous author states that for the Celts, ‘on the threshold of the cold barren winter months’, Halloween marked the beginning of the year and was a moment ‘when the gates between this world and the next were open’; it was a time of ‘communion with the spirits of the dead, who, like the wild autumnal winds, were free to roam the earth’. It is also worth noting the author’s belief that Halloween festivities help children ‘come to terms with the unseen and sometimes frightening world of dreams’: ‘It is a time when both adults and children can reach out to touch the realms of myth and imagination’ and should be ‘a time for laughing in the face of adversity’. [Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, 360, 385.]

This account is worth unpacking. The medieval Celtic feast celebrated on the first of November was Samhain. The quotations included in the OED entry for Samhain allude to its being a harvest festival, and also to ‘the usual games’, libations being presented to the gods of the sea, and other sacrifices. But these are all modern interpretations (the earliest of them dates from 1888), and the truth is that we do not know precisely what was involved in the medieval festivities. In reviewing the various modern accounts, Ronald Hutton explains that ‘There is no evidence that it was connected with the dead, and no proof that it opened the year, but it was certainly a time when supernatural forces were especially to be guarded against or propitiated’, and he adds that its importance in the popular imagination was cemented only when reinforced ‘by the imposition upon it of a Christian festival which became primarily one of the dead’. [Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, 369-70.]

That Christian festival has been known by several names including All-hallowtide and Hollantide. It consists of All Saints’ Eve (i.e. Halloween), All Saints’ Day (otherwise All Hallows or Hallowmas) and All Souls’ Day. Its place in the religious calendar was established in the eighth century by Pope Gregory III, and in the following century Gregory IV and the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious reinforced its position, making it a holy day of obligation.

Traditionally, All Saints’ Eve (October 31st) has been a vigil, a time for prayer in preparation for the feasts that follow. All Saints’ Day (November 1st) is a time to honour the saints, especially those who have no other feast day associated with them; in the OED’s illustrative material it is characterised as a ‘solemn’ and ‘bleak-faced’ occasion. On All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) the living pray for the souls of all the departed, and it is an opportunity for charitable acts. These two occasions are now not always clearly distinguished and, especially within the Anglican church, the traditions connected with them have merged.

One tradition with a robust history is the custom, on All Souls’ Day, of souling. The OED defines this as ‘The action, practice, or ritual of going about asking for donations of food, etc.’; the accompanying citations mention instances of this in Staffordshire and Cheshire. Elsewhere a citation from Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1661) refers to ‘Soul-masse-Cakes’, which are ‘certain oaten cakes, which some of the wealthier sort of persons in Lancashire use still to give the poor on All-Souls day’, and another, from Henry Swinburne’s Travels in the Two Sicilies (1785) reports that ‘It is a custom here, on All Souls day, to throw open the charnel-houses, lighted up with torches, and decked out with all the flowery pageantry of May-day.’

But more durable than any particular custom is the watchful, anticipatory temper of October 31st. The tone of the Christian vigil on this date was not a radical departure from the tone of the season’s pagan rituals, and a febrile apprehensiveness colours all the date’s observances, whether Christian or not. The sense of its fleeting and ethereal quality has made it a popular occasion for divination. The OED entry for All Hallows Eve contains an extract from George Sinclair’s Satan’s Invisible World Discovered (1685), a very popular collection of accounts of supernatural occurrences: ‘Some young Women … upon Allhallow even goe to bed without speaking to any, … and … see in their sleep, the man that shall be their husband.’

Related to this is the belief that on the last night of October the veil between the living and the dead becomes thin. Some of those who mark the occasion put on fantastic disguises — to ward off the supernatural, perhaps, or in imitation of it, or to avoid recognition. Since the sixteenth century this has been known as guising; the practice is similar to the well-established tradition of mumming.

The anarchic spirit involved in dressing up extravagantly was one that readily turned into prank-playing or vandalism, since revellers in disguise are less likely to be identified as the perpetrators of crime, or at any rate believe this to be the case. Often, in a rather brazen gesture, the nocturnal activities of the guiser could be illuminated — ghoulishly — with a lantern, and a hollowed-out turnip was once the preferred vessel. The OED’s first citation for turnip-lantern dates from 1844, and turnip-ghost (‘a simulated ghost or apparition of which the head is formed by a turnip-lantern’) is traced to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863). But the use of turnips for this purpose seems to have a longer history, and an 1838 volume, The Rambles of Captain Bolio, contains a very precise description of the best method, which feels like an epitome of tradition, rather than something novel.

In the OED’s entry for pope, a citation from Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Word Book (1988) notes the expression Penny-for-the-Pope and explains that ‘the children of Stromness[,] when they go round with their turnip lanterns at Halloween[,] use this as their begging slogan’. A stronger impression of the season’s unruliness comes across in the entry for mischief night (‘originally 30 April, now 30 October or 4 November’), which includes a comment from 1865 about how

Boys, thirty years ago, used to go about damaging property, believing the law allowed them, on this night. Happily the practice is over at Wakefield, and the time forgotten.

Hallowtide was not, traditionally, the only festival that prompted riot and topsy-turviness, and it is the modern decline or curtailment of other festivals — symptomatic of a general blurring of the seasons, and of the waning of their particular traditions and lore — that has made Halloween stand out. Christmas is now the cynosure of the ritual year. The Victorians reinvented Christmas as a sentimental domestic occasion, rather than a community event; in the process they reduced its traditions of charity, wassailing and jovial but often rowdy misrule, and the modern Christmas’s polite commercialism and chaste accoutrements (cards, crackers and carefully decorated trees) seem like a rebuke to Halloween’s public, antic and luridly morbid character.

As for the American popularity of Halloween, it can be traced back to the large-scale Irish immigration of the nineteenth century, especially during the potato famine of the 1840s. The OED cites an article from the Mountain Democrat, a California newspaper that claims a more broadly Celtic influence: ‘The pranksome traditions of halloween night came to America with Irish, Welsh and Scottish immigrants in the late 19th Century’. But it was specifically the Irish traditions that had the widest influence. Where they couldn’t be sustained, they were adapted; for instance, because turnips weren’t plentiful in America, pumpkins took their place.

The exuberance of modern American celebrations of Halloween has been amplified by the increasingly large community of Mexican-Americans and their observance of the Mexican holiday known as the Día de Muertos. The wider embrace of this holiday and its imagery (especially the sugar or clay skull known as a calavera) has fuelled arguments about cultural appropriation. It has also combined with the resurgence of the zombie film genre — and with the merchandising of products that fetishise the ‘living dead’ — to create a consumer stampede that delights supermarkets, alcohol producers and costumiers. They have an obvious interest in preserving and augmenting Halloween’s current cult status, and the occasion today seems like a lethal collision of commerce, irony, dark creativity, moral ostentation, cultural sensitivity, adolescent whoopee and the genuinely hair-raising.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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