Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick or Treat?

Halloween postcard, ca. 1900-1910.
Kevin Kenny

Halloween is a Celtic festival, imported to America, and later re-exported to Europe, pumpkins and all.

The word Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows Evening—the eve of All Hallows Day (or all Saints Day) Day. October 31 tends to be a boisterous occasion, whether in Boston (even without the World Series) or in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, where it kicks off the festival of el dia de los muertos.

In the Christian calendar, All Hallows Day, on November 1, was the day to remember saints and martyrs. All Souls Day, on November 2, was dedicated to all the departed faithful awaiting entry into heaven and hence in need of prayer.

As with most Christian holidays, the Church carefully overlaid the “days of the dead” on top of an earlier pre-Christian festival. Just as Christmas marks the winter solstice and Easter the onset of spring, Halloween was timed to coincide with a Celtic festival celebrating the end of the harvest.

The Protestant English overlaid a different holiday on the old harvest festival. They celebrated, and continue to celebrate, Guy Fawkes Night, the anniversary of a foiled attempt to blow up parliament on November 5, 1605. This holiday caught on in colonial New England, where Halloween was not widely celebrated until the onset of mass Catholic immigration in the mid-19th century.

Most Catholic immigrants at this time were German or Irish. Germany does not have a long Halloween tradition; the holiday celebrated (and sometimes lamented) there today is an American import. Ireland, by contrast, has a robust and deep-rooted tradition. The old Celtic harvest festival, known as samhain (after the Gaelic word for November), was a wild affair in Ireland.

On an Irish Halloween in the 19th century, the children stayed safely at home. It was the adults who went out in disguise, parading from door to door. There was no end of frolicking, cultural play, and social inversion—the world turned upside down—but it had a distinctly ominous undertone.

It was a short step from the rituals of Halloween to the choreographed violence of rural secret societies, among them the Whiteboys, the Lady Clares, and the Molly Maguires, all of them men disguised in women’s clothing.

Children today rarely feel a need to enact a “trick,” having grabbed a “treat.” In the past, however, the trick might have been a threat, a warning, a beating, or an arson attack. Perhaps even an assassination. The treat forestalling the trick was a concession by a landlord, his agent, or a hated neighbor. Half-yearly rents were due on October 31, adding to the tension. Over time, on both sides of the Atlantic, Halloween became a children’s celebration. It’s probably just as well.

Kevin Kenny is Professor History at Boston College. He is author of Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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