Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why Halloween?

In an attempt to capitalize on holidays as a "teachable moment" and also to somewhat de-commercialize certain american holidays for our children, I wanted to begin researching the historical roots of days we celebrate.   I want my children to learn the meaning of thoughful intention, beyond simply effort.  I want my family to have traditions with meaning not empty annual rituals.  Also, I think that if we encourage this type of questioning, perhaps they are more likely to recognize certain hiccups as opportunity not barriers.

I couldn't think of better event to begin with, then the most amorphous holiday to me: Halloween.  This historically honoring yet morbid festival is now associated in popular american culture with costumes, cobwebs and candy, lots of candy.  Why costumes, why cobwebs and why all the candy?  What I have gathered so far from minimal reading is that the history of modern Halloween is muddled and spans the globe: Italy, Sweden, Japan, Australia, Ireland, etc.  There are no shortage of theories and details mixed up in this cauldron of customs.  It seems to be a stew composed mainly of two types of celebrations: end of summer/harvest and 'day of the dead' type holidays.  I have listed those I find most noteworthy as follows:

1.  END OF SUMMER Festivals, the earliest being the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds.  Another of note is the Celtic/Gaelic festival of Samhain which translates approximately as "summer's end", during which they customarily bobbed for apples.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     2.  Festivals DAYS HONORING THE DEAD are another obvious and necessary historical ingredient.  The earliest being Mayan.   The Roman festival called Parentalia to honor ancestors is usually noted (although it was a 9-day celebration in February). Another was the 16th century Scottish celebration of the day before Solemnity of All Saints ("All Saints Day" for all saints known and unknown - interesting), also called Hallows Day or Hallowmas, thus the day before was called All-Hallows-Even("eve"), which is thought to be the origin of the term "Halloween".

WHY PUMPKINS?  While I had assumed that pumpkins were associated with the harvest component of Halloween, it seems that it is the American default for the historical use of Turnips... which need I mention are not definately not orange.  I admit there would be a void for me if the warm orangeness hue was missing from Halloween.  The carving of jack-o'-lanterns developed from an earlier custom of carving turnips into lanterns as a way of remembering the souls held in purgatory (during one of the numerous culturally significant holidays honoring the dead).  American pumpkin carving was first (early 1800's) associated with harvest generally, not becoming specifically Halloween oriented until the late 19th century.

WHY THE COSTUMES?  Trick-or-treating is thought to orginate from medieval practice of souling, when the poor of Ireland and Britain would go door to door on Hallowmas, receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls' Day.  Similar traditions for dead souls have been noted as far south as Italy.  In more modern times, especially in Scotland and Ireland, it was called guising.  It was recorded in Scotland in the late 1800's where masqueraders in disguise visiting homes in hopes for fruit, cakes or money, while carrying lanterns made of hollowed turnips.  Guising expected more from the children than just a costume as they were normally expected to offer some kind of song, story or trick to earn their favor.  Such a practice was noted in North America nearly one hundred years later.

WHY SO SCARY?  Morbid imagery that we have come to adopt with Halloween certainly has historical roots in cultural festivals honoring the dead but creative imagination expressed in literature and film (think Frankenstein, Dracula) has added much to the excessive shock value of this morbid imagery and of course the honor part is missing entirely.
WHY THE BACK-LASH?  So, because I can't help myself, I offer my comment on negative connotations  of Halloween as I blame them for scaring parents into keeping children home on this harmless day of fun.  There are some who have latched onto this secular celebration as an opportunity, but there is really no basis for this and I don't feel it warrants further discussion.  I suggest people to look up.  I think the honoring of our ancestors is a message worth passing on.

Given all of this lovely dry information listed above, please don't misunderstand me!  I would never ever ever disallow my children to participate in Halloween events or make any judgement on doing what I have done on Halloween all my life... dressing them as a golden garden fairy, astronaut and a monster so we can ask neighbors for too much candy which I have no intention of actually letting them eat.  The children love the festivity and enjoy going door-to-door collecting compliments for their costumes most of all.
In summary, my intention is not to over-romanticize the past but hopefully integrate a little history on the children as they prepare to be over-sugared, laughing with friends and costumed in glittery fun while roaming the neighborhood (with supervision close behind =).

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