Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween - Not Pagan.

Time for the annual "Halloween is not pagan" column.

Honoring the dead

So if it’s not from paganism, how does Halloween pick up the Day of the Dead vibe? Well, about a century and a half later, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery at Cluny (way over in southern France — not Ireland), adds a celebration of All Souls on Nov. 2. Because Cluny is the coolest place in Europe at the time, the devotion spreads everywhere, resulting in back-to-back feasts for all those in heaven and purgatory.
What about those in hell? The tenderhearted but obviously superstitious Catholic Irish fretted that the damned might not take kindly to being left out. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Eve to mollify them. This is not something the Church was thrilled with, but the irrepressible Irish did it anyway.
Things go along in this vein in Ireland (and nowhere else) until the 14th and 15th centuries. At this point, the colossal death toll of the bubonic plague (half the population died) makes a rather large impression on the European psyche, and Catholics became pretty focused on the afterlife. The result was a big uptick in Masses on All Souls Day as well as great enthusiasm for artistic representations of the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” featuring the devil leading a daisy chain of people from every walk of life into the tomb.

Costumes and treats

On All Souls Day, not Halloween, the French would dress up in costume representing everybody from the pope and the king down to the fishmonger and have a fun time dancing. But it was the French, not the Irish, who did that.
So how did costumes become part of Halloween? Most likely it begins when the French and Irish started hanging out together and marrying each other in the 17th-century American colonies. Creepy Irish folk customs about mollifying the damned and creepy French masquerades went together like peanut butter and chocolate.
And the “trick or treat” bit? Well, it wasn’t only French and Irish Catholics who were routinely treated badly by their English Protestant neighbors. English Catholics got it in the neck, too, and the great high feast of politicized English anti-Catholicism fell within days of Halloween: Guy Fawkes Night.
Guy Fawkes was an English Catholic who, whether because of a real conspiracy on his part or from being set up by a British crown requiring a patsy to focus English patriotic hatred on a Catholic bogeyman, was executed in 1605 on the charge of trying to blow up Parliament. Ever since, the Brits have had a wonderful time on Nov. 5, lighting bonfires, running around on a chilly fall night, and partying. And for extra special fun, in England and America in the 18th century, Protestants would put on masks and visit local Catholic houses in the dead of night demanding beer and cakes for their celebration — or else. When they said “trick or treat!” they meant it.
Happily, as time went on, the anti-Catholicism of the season diminished. But “trick or treat” stuck around and got amalgamated to Oct. 31, the day the Irish and French were partying anyway. So by the mid-1800s, a largely made-in-the-USA Halloween was a fixture of American culture. Meanwhile, even today, Halloween remains almost unknown in Europe, even in the countries where some of the customs originated. It’s about as ancient and pagan and mystical and druidic as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
When it comes to the “pagan origins” of Halloween, it turns out there is nothing there. Halloween is a product of Christian culture — and mostly American Christian culture — through and through. Where it is most ancient, it is least pagan — and most deeply Catholic.


mrez said...

Thank you, Peter for posting this. I needed to have more information after the recent queries of last night.

mrez said...

For the REAL treat of seeing the bonfires celebrated, see the movie "Meet Me In St Louis" with Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien. It is a special movie classic that shows the children involved in creating havoc on that spooky night with a bonfire! and doing some prankish deeds! the moivie is filled with many special historical touches.

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