A mysterious, spooky, scary – such words usually surround Halloween. Some Ukrainians still don’t accept it and think that it has nothing in common with local traditions. Meanwhile every year, on October, 31, more and more children go in costumes from house to house with the question “Trick or treat?” Halloween is fully clear for them. But what does this celebration really hold?
When we were students, my groupmates always tried to ignore Halloween. Actually, we must have been just lazy to carve a pumpkin on the competition in the hall, but our official excuse was that “it isn’t our tradition”. Moreover, we studied folklore so were supposed to care about saving our local traditions. Anyway, this boycott wasn’t noticed, Halloween has come to us together with other holidays, in the first place, as an item of Western pop-culture, gradually being accepted by people. And it makes sense. A proper marketing, thematic films, parties, festivals etc. make this celebration even more popular. Nevertheless, Halloween, which seems to many people so strange and alien, has much in common with our traditions.
Customs and cults connected with commemorating ancestors have an ancient history. Halloween originates from are a Celtic holiday Samhain and pagan rituals which are connected with it. Farming cultures had their year divided into two seasons – winter and summer, namely time when the soil has a rest (symbolically dies) and time for harvesting (giving birth).
Samhain was celebrated on October 31, signing the end of harvesting and the beginning of winter – a darker time of a year. Celts believed that it was the time when the border between two worlds was getting thinner so the dead arose for one night, while the living could foresee the future and communicate with the deceased. That’s why this time was used for fortune-telling and magic spelling, people put on masks to cheat the death and set fires beaconing the dead and defining their territory. On Samhain, people also had to bring offerings to gods and spirits so they helped them to winter.
Similar celebrations also took place in the Rome Empire. In particular, spirits of the dead were believed to come their relatives’ houses during Lemuria. If we look at the Ukrainian Christmas and Green Week with the same rituals, Halloween doesn’t seem so alien anymore.
As Christianity came, it became essential to assimilate a popular Celtic celebration according to a new religion. Thus, the Church determined November 1 the All Hallows’ Day, and later, it determined November 2 the All Dead’s Day. It helped to turn Samhain, the most important Celtic holiday, into the All Hallows’ Eve, now known as Halloween.
The church itself played also an important role in confirming some rituals of this “mystical” holiday. For example, to make November 2 more popular, clergymen ordered people to pray for souls which were in purgatory and couldn’t enter Heaven on this day. That’s how the Church spread the trick-and-treating tradition. Children and the poor went from house to house, taking cookies prepared beforehand in remembrance of dead souls (soulcookies), and promising to pray for their place in Heaven.
This holiday was celebrated in Britain and Ireland. In the XIX century, immigrants brought it to the USA. Halloween in America was put on a special social and cultural ground: the loses of the recent Civic War which took lives of more than 500 000 people constantly took people back to the death topics. Many soldiers never came back home, they were buried somewhere away from home or were just missed in action. People believed that their lost souls were wandering in our world. This is what, according to researches, influenced the character of Halloween celebrating in the middle of the XIX century. It was celebrated around a fire with people telling ghost stories. Spooky stories about ghosts who weren’t buried traditionally, in a proper way – so they roamed the earth without a resting place, were extremely “appropriate” exactly on Halloween – the time when the border between two worlds is elusive.
Except for it, sources of that time mention another very important Halloween tradition – making a mess. Young men gathered and played tricks the whole night: were putting down gates, throwing carts over roofs, crashing windows, letting cattle out of stalls etc. There is still the Halloween pranking movement which begins upon England of the beginning of the XVII century. Halloween pranking can be connected with initiation to men communities (it still exists among American gangs which follow the Halloween pranking tradition). However, speaking about the historical basis of Halloween – Samhain – it is more appropriate to speak about them in the terms used by M. Bakhtin “carnival liberties” or by O. Kurochkin “ritual debauch”. Such “anti- behavioural” actions usually took place in the periods when the border between the worlds was elusive (commemorative days or beginning of a new year). According to Mircea Eliade, it symbolized a reproduction in the game form of a cosmic act of passage from an ultimate chaos to the creation of the world – the order. Participants put on masks to assimilate with spirits and counter themselves with usual people. O. Kurochkin says that “a person in a costume is originally a temporary trespasser of a settled order, but along with that, he or she, according to a carnival objection, encourages its stabilisation”.
In the Ukrainian tradition, this function is performed by carols sung on Malanka (the folk holiday celebrated on January 13, New Year’s Eve in accordance with the Julian calendar) when Malanka (Saint Melania the Younger) makes pranks and makes a mess at yards. Along with that, Ukrainian culture has another famous type of mess making – on St. Andrew’s day – which is very similar to Halloween one, which was popular in Britain. The tradition also included throwing carts over roofs, putting down gates, overturning wood etc. However, according to ethnological and folklore researches, these anti-behavioural actions were rather a symbolic punishment for girls who ignored guys’ courting being indifferent to creating a family. The period of weddings is known to have started on the Feast of the Virgin of Mercy, October 14. It lasted until the beginning of the Nativity Fast (November 28). In fact, all those girls who didn’t react to guys’ courting, could really be punished in the night before the St. Andrew’s Day. It can sound weird today, but yet 100 years ago, people’s lives were planned beforehand as in a script. If someone was reluctant to get married, this person was symbolically punished, hinting that way that he or she had to change something in their lives.
But back to Halloween, we see that this holiday has more in common with Ukrainian customs than it differs from them. Actually, if we look more attentively at what was happening in the night of All Saint’s Eve, it may seem that it is like a concentrated series of rituals and customs which are performed during the Ukrainian Ramadan (from the St. Roman’s day to the St. Jordan’s Day – December 1 – January 19). For example, on Halloween, people were telling fortunes. Girls were gathering and making the same things which Ukrainian girls were making on the Days of St. Catherine and Andrew: they were telling fortunes. They were baking scones and tried to make out face of their future husbands in them, were hanging their wet shirts outside for the night to find out whether they would get married that year (Ukrainian girls were using towels), were eating salted fish in the evening or putting spoons under their pillows to see their future husbands in their dreams.
Fortune-telling became particularly popular at the beginning of the XX century when Americans started to arrange playparties – celebrations similar to Ukrainian parties on the St. Andrew’s day. Young people were also telling spooky stories, making mess and singing. One of the funniest customs was apple potting. Researches say that this activity had erotic content as a girl who got an apple was to get married the next year.
Making jack-o-lanterns also became popular in the XX century. Irish immigrants are known to have used turnips instead, but they substituted the material for that which was easy to find in America. There is a legend about Stingy Jack who was an old drunk who played tricks with Devil several times and when he finally died, he couldn’t get into Hell. Devil threw him out of Hell and tossed him an ember from flames. Jack hollowed out the turnip and placed the ember the Devil had given him, inside the turnip. From that day onward, Stingy Jack roamed the earth without a resting place, lighting his way as he went with his “Jack O’Lantern”. It now symbolizes the undead who wander across the Earth on Halloween.
At the beginning of the XX century, Halloween was celebrated at parties with fortune-telling, spooky stories, pumpkin carving and mostly, with pranks which became a real problem during the Great Depression. The night of October 31, 1933, is known as the Black Halloween because of the mess has done at it. Since that night, Halloween, as we know it today, has begun to be shaped. Schools began arranging costume parades and games to distract children and teenagers from making a mess at streets. Trick-or-treating starts to be used, in the first place, like a buyback from damage: leaders of gangs were given candies or money so they didn’t cause damage to a house. Finally, children and teenagers began putting on costumes, going from door to door and demanding sweets. Many books with tips on how to arrange an interesting party are written. Ready-to-wear costumes from paper, later from more solid materials, are sold.
It all existed on the border of the XIX and XX centuries but only since the 1930s, people started to make Halloween not so damaging celebration. It was then when the first cartoons appeared, so did comics and horror films for adults in the 1950s. It makes the holiday much more popular. The celebration is being transformed again. These days, Halloween is becoming the holiday we know, with a standard pack of items we can easily buy.
When I am asked whether Ukrainians need this holiday, I hesitate to answer. It may be alien for us in the format we know it today. But if we look at its origins, we’ll see that the Ukrainian Ramadan and Halloween have more common things than differences.
On the other hand, for the rest of the world, it is not anymore a special time for commemorating their relatives’ passing. It is rather an engaging carnival and the reason to see friends. Well, don’t we perceive it the same way?
Text by Daria Antsybor