Many things, from loud denunciations of Monarchy to even louder clothes, seem to define the United States to countless British. But one that generally falls far lower on their “Yankee Cultural Invasion” screen than even McDonald’s or Starbucks is the holiday called Halloween – although in the past decade there has been resentment over its edging out Bonfire Night on November 5.
Critics in Continental Europe and Latin America attack it for its bad effect on local All Saints and All Souls customs, while religious leaders of the evangelical variety attack it as Satanic – something not helped by Wiccans claiming it for their own. While I for one agree with confining it to the States, I uphold its place in our national life – as we’ll see, on the one hand, it enshrines some mummified Catholic practices and beliefs, and on the other, it goes to the very roots of Americana.
Just as Christmas may owe its holly and mistletoe to some long-forgotten Druidical rites, so too may Halloween have inherited a tincture or two of old Celtic custom – certainly it was brought to American shores by Irish and Scots immigrants. But it has been the vigil of All Saints since the 8th century.
Despite the attempts of followers of the age-old (that is, dating back to the 1920s) religion of Wicca to link it to the Celtic festival of the dead – Samhain – the connexion thereto is no deeper than that of Christmas to the pagan Yule. That is to say, more present in the minds of academics with an agenda than in the long generations of its practitioners.
Proof of this assertion is to be found in the similarity of observances over the three days of Hallowmas (Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls) amongst Catholic or formerly Catholic cultures from Latin America, Louisiana, and Quebec to Estonia and Finland. Prayers and Masses are offered for the dead, candles lit in cemeteries, and in different times and places, folk would go about offering to pray for the deceased of a given household in return for food and drink.
In the British Isles, this ritual was called “souling.” Food might be served for the dead, depending on the locale. Halloween being the eve of a major feast, fasting and abstinence required a meatless supper; in Ireland this meant the savoury mess called “Colcannon.”
Not too surprisingly, if the spirits of the dead were out and about, it took little to suppose that demons, fairies, witches, and Lord alone knew what else might be out, haunting the dark. In many places costumes were worn, and Ireland saw turnips hollowed out to create makeshift lamps. These were either named for or else gave their name to a legend about a man rejected from Hell and forced to wander: “Jack O’Lantern.”
It must be hard carving out turnips: in any case, when the Celtic immigrants arrived in these United States, they discovered the pumpkin, and Jack O’Lantern would never look back.
Indeed, in the 19th century, Halloween took root in America like an imported plant that has found incredibly fertile soil. All strata of society fostered Halloween parties featuring uncanny costumes, apple-bobbing, and fortune-telling, while the lower classes built bonfires as their youth wreaked destruction on unguarded property.
After World War I, the latter activity impelled local government to suppress it, and from the 1930s on it was replaced with the “Trick or Treating” that characterised the Halloweens of my childhood.
In recent years it has once more become an adult holiday, as my generation attempts to seek refuge from present horrors in the silver fog of nostalgia. But the question must be asked: why has the horrific side of the day always been so popular in America?
There is a dark side to American culture, which has always been with us – I suspect it comes from Calvinism, though it attaches to whatever comes to hand. Think of Salem Witchcraft. All of Europe has dark folklore; Britain and Ireland have produced exceptional ghost story writers. But our first three major writers – Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe – were masters of the macabre, albeit with a touch or more than a touch of black humour. So too with more modern writers as HP Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King.
Lest my readers think such stuff is all produced by the New English Canaan, dark matter repeatedly stares out of the Midwestern work of Garrison Keillor, and we have a whole genre of “Southern Gothic.” The truth is that for whatever reason, Halloween responds to a deep need in the American soul, and this writer feels it as strongly as anyone.
But just as a Catholic Chinese may revere Confucius and his own ancestors, but nevertheless – if he truly loves his country – he must ponder on how to evangelise it, so too with the Catholic American. Halloween offers several opportunities to do just that.
On the one hand, he can inform himself and his family of the Church’s teaching on such matters as ghosts, exorcisms, etc., and the sacramentals and other means provided by her to ward off the dark. On the other, he can return Halloween to its original role of ushering in the Month of the Holy Souls by including requests for prayers for his dead in the packets of candy he gives out on that enchanted night, and by praying with his children for the dead of those who have in turn given them treats.
May such a transformed observance be a presage of an evangelised nation. In that spirit, I wish you all a very Happy Halloween.