No Quarter: an Anarchist Zine about Pirates

Thursday, July 23, 1992

Musings on the History of Halloween

The history of Halloween is invariably traced back to Samhain, the Celtic festival of the death of summer and the beginning of the (Celtic) new year. David J. Skal makes the point that mass media representations of Halloween “often leave the impression that the holiday has been handed down, more or less intact, from Celtic antiquity… In reality, contemporary Halloween is a patchwork holiday, a kind of cultural Frankenstein stitched together quite recently from a number of traditions, all fused beneath the cauldron-light of the American melting pot”(p.20).
Skal Points to Roman influences on Samhain including the November 1st harvest festival dedicated to Pomona, Goddess of the orchard (hence bobbing for apples), and Saturnalia, the winter Solstice, which was celebrated by masked reveling. The feast of All Saints (Nov 1st) and All Souls (Nov 2nd) were established by the Church in the middle ages as part of an attempt to move Christian holidays into line with pagan holidays to co-opt them. Lisa Morton points out the similarities between Martinmas (Nov 11th) and both Samhain and Halloween. Martinmas is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of the harvest. Morton points out that before the Gregorian calendar Martinmas was celebrated on Nov 1st. Martinmas is celebrated by children carrying jack-o’-lanterns in Germany, and house to house begging in the Netherlands.

Interestingly Morton also relates Martinmas to wine and quotes church documents referring to “Bacchus in the figure of Martin”. Bacchus is of course the beloved Roman God of Wine and Madness, also known to the Greeks as Dionysus. Dionysus was known as the Liberator, freeing one from one’s normal self either in the sense of intoxication or madness. In his last days Friedrich Nietzsche was freed from himself and became Dionysus. Perhaps Dionysus in the figure of Nietzsche (see Peter Lamborn Wilson, “Crazy Nietzsche”).
Another interesting influence on modern Halloween (although the extent of the influence is questionable) is Guy Fawkes Day (Nov 4th), which commemorates the “Gunpowder, Treason and Plot” of the Catholic Fawkes to blow up Parliament in England. Guy Fawkes Day involves children collecting “pennies for the Guy” to help deter the cost of fireworks and huge bonfires to burn the effigies of Fawkes and the Pope. As strange as it seems to us in North America, Guy Fawkes Day doesn’t celebrate Fawkes or his attempted demolition, but rather celebrates the foiling of the plot. This point may have been lost on some of the North American viewers of V for Vendetta this year, which was undoubtedly the introduction of many to the holiday. Unless they read the comic first.
Ronald Hutton notes that in the UK “Hallowe’en was also notable for the activities of mummers and guisers, figures found at winter festivals in general but particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers”(p.380).

Orkney Boys in the early twentieth century went about dressed in female clothes, while those on Skye in the same period wore old clothes and blackened their faces. The latter were traditionally allowed to ‘exercise the greatest licence’, sitting where they pleased in a kitchen, singing, conversing, and ignoring the inhabitants of the house which they had entered and who were expected to set scones, cakes and fruit before them. Sooty, painted, or masked faces were also important on the Scottish mainland, as was odd dress of almost any kind. A common rhyme among Scots Hallowe’en guisers was:

Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marchin’
We are the guisers at the door,
If ye dinna let us in
We will bash yer windies in
An ye’ll never see the guisers any more” (p.381).

This is the sort of trick or treat we dream of. None of the ridiculous sing for your candy or say thank you. Candy on Halloween is not a gift. It’s a payment to prevent the ‘trick’. If ye dinna let us in, we will bash yer SUV’s windies in. Then again, if the candy isn’t good enough maybe we’ll do it anyway. But I digress.
An admirable part of modern Halloween lore is the Jack-o’-lantern. Jack-o’lantern seems to have been the original “God doesn’t want me and the Devil is afraid I’ll take over” type character (ok, maybe not the original, but dating back to at least the 1600s) . His pranks having offended both God and the Devil, Jack was condemned to walk the earth until judgment day with only a burning coal from the Devil that Jack caught in a hollowed out turnip to light his way. The turnip eventually became a pumpkin and Jack was brought over to North America from Scotland or Ireland, perhaps both. According to Skal, Jack-o’-lantern was associated with spooky pranks as early as 1817, but not explicitly with Halloween. Skal argues that almost nothing of modern Halloween existed in its modern form before 1900. Certainly not Trick-or-Treating.

This suits us fine. Halloween doesn’t need to have ancient traditions transmitted directly from the Druids. For my purposes Halloween doesn’t need to be ancient, only liberatory. The fact is that at some point in the Twentieth century (or perhaps before) Halloween developed into a celebration that gave children a lot of liberty to celebrate and to transgress normal social boundaries. If some of these practices are borrowed in altered forms from the Celts, medieval festival days, or Guy Fawkes, to name a few, then so much the better. We do not propose a ‘pure’ Halloween with ancient folkloric traditions, or even a stationary Halloween. The purpose of this project is not nostalgia for an imagined past (either in ancient times, or our childhood). Rather we seek to examine Halloween today and take what we find to be liberatory and to emphasize those elements. We seek to counteract the commercialization, pacification and policing of Halloween. We imagine an unruly Halloween, created by children for children, of ever shifting oral traditions, with little or no constraint, free from the control of parents, teachers, and police. We think that would be a Halloween worth celebrating!


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