The Origins of Our Halloween Traditions

Halloween illustration by Stefan Schweihofer

It’s coming up on Halloween, and so it’s time for America’s greatest annual October tradition: Christmas sales!

Joking around aside, Halloween is one of America’s most popular holidays – netting as much as $6 billion per year in candy and costume sales. This fall festival is a great time of year to carve pumpkins, watch scary movies, or to dress up as our favorite monsters or fictional characters.

... or farm equipment?

… or farm equipment?

Why do we celebrate this holiday? Where did our Halloween traditions come from? Why is there such an emphasis on scary stuff at this time of year? It’s time to look at the origins of our Halloween traditions.

Of pagans and Christians

Pagan imagery from Wikimedia Commons

Long-time Cat Flaggers already know that Christmas and Easter both started out as pagan holidays that were “Christian-ified” so that people could keep celebrating their favorite traditions once they converted to the new religion. Well, Halloween started out the same way.

The ancient Celtic peoples of Europe celebrated a festival on November 1 called “Samhain” that marked the start of winter. They believed that the spirits of the dead walked among the living on that day. They would light bonfires and sacrifice animals to honor the dead. When Christians started converting the people of Europe to their religion, they designated November 1 as “All Saints Day”, a day to honor the memory of the Christian saints. In the British Isles, this day would be celebrated with the handing out of “soul cakes” – a bread pastry – to the poor, who would repay the favor by praying for the donors’ recently departed loved ones.

The Spanish brought the celebration of All Saints Day to the New World, where it became fused with ancient Aztec traditions to become Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), a festival for honoring one’s deceased loved ones by leaving out offerings of food and gifts for them. This festival has been growing in popularity here in the United States.

Day of the Dead image from Pixabay

In medieval English, All Saints Day was known as “All-Hallowmas”, and the day before it was called “All-Hallows Eve”. Over time, the name “All-Hallows Eve” was shortened to “Halloween”.

Trick or Treat!

The practice of trick-or-treating is as ancient as the Halloween holiday itself, originating in the practice of “mumming and guising”. This was where people would beg for food while dressed up in disguises made of straw, sometimes enticing people to give more by performing skits.

Irish immigrants that came to America in the 19th century revived some of these traditions, but took them in a darker direction. The phrase “trick or treat” was originally a threat. Vandalism was common, as were such pranks as tipping over outhouses and opening gates so livestock could escape. By the time World War II came around, the annual damage done by Halloween revelers became such a serious concern that communities across America began to organize and take action against these pranksters, encouraging safer Halloween practices that weren’t so harmful to one’s neighbors.

By the 1950s, families and communities across America had turned trick-or-treating into the tradition we have today – a tradition of handing out candy to supervised children in costumes while going door-to-door in their neighborhood. By making Halloween a celebration mainly for children, communities were able to make it safer and more family-friendly.

Carve your pumpkin

Jack-o-lantern image by William Warby

The jack-o-lantern is by far the most popular and iconic symbol of the holiday. It just isn’t Halloween unless you are hollowing out a big, orange squash and sticking a candle in it! Who came up with the idea of carving pumpkins?

Once again, we have Irish immigrants to thank for this tradition. For centuries, the Irish would carve spooky faces into turnips and stick lit embers in them. The idea was to scare away evil spirits, making sure that they wouldn’t ruin a day as sacred as All Saints Day. Not long after arriving in the New World, Irish-Americans realized that pumpkins were practically made for carving, as big and as easy to hollow out as they are. Why struggle to carve a turnip when you have plenty of pumpkins to carve?

So why do we call these carved pumpkins jack-o-lanterns? The name is a reference to a popular legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who managed to trick the Devil. He convinced the Devil to climb an apple tree, then trapped him there by putting crosses on the ground around the base of the tree. He finally let the Devil go in return for a promise to never be taken to Hell. Trouble was, when Stingy Jack died, he wasn’t allowed to enter Heaven; he had simply lived far too sinful a life. Unable to go to Heaven or Hell, Jack’s soul took to wandering the world, with nothing but a lantern to guide his way.

We dare you to scare us, Hollywood!

Nosferatu Shadow image from Wikipedia

In 1896, French filmmaker Georges Méliès, a pioneer of the then-new medium of motion pictures, created Le Manoir Du Diable, a three-minute short film often credited as the first horror movie. Honestly, by modern standards, it is really quite tame, but everything has to start somewhere. Over the years, movies that are designed to scare started to grow in popularity. Many early horror films featured vampires, while others adapted classic horror novels such as Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

One of the earliest horror film stars was Lon Chaney, who portrayed the villain or monster of dozens of horror films from 1913 to 1929. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” because the characters he played were often disfigured, monstrous, or grotesque. Many admired the way his acting prowess showed through behind his heavy makeup. He died of lung cancer at the height of his popularity in 1930.

The 1930s and 1940s saw a series of famous horror films produced by Universal Pictures, featuring such monsters as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Mummy. These films were so influential, they helped to shape the public image of these creatures in popular culture right down to the present day.

Of course, parodies such as "The Munsters" certainly helped.

Of course, parodies such as “The Munsters” certainly helped.

Of course, it would be a disservice to the genre to ignore the contributions of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, director of such films as Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. While Hitchcock worked on a wide variety of different types of films, his contribution to horror was elevating it above mere B-movie entertainment. While the majority of horror movies, both then and now, have always been populist in nature and have always emphasized cheap scares, Hitchcock proved that the genre could also be used for more high-art projects that are unsettling on a much deeper level. Later films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining and Silence of the Lambs certainly owe a huge debt to Hitchcock’s work.

To be perfectly honest, horror movies have never been my thing. However, plenty of people love them, and every year these films earn millions of dollars. Sure, star-studded action and comedy movies earn far, far more at the box office, but those movies also cost far, far more to make. Horror films are, in general, very inexpensive to make, so they tend to be immensely profitable even with merely modest box office sales. Clearly, Hollywood is going to keep making horror films for a long time to come.

Whether you spend the end of October watching scary movies, turning pumpkins into works of art, or dressing up in a costume, I hope you all have a Happy Halloween!

How to Become a Saint

Saints image from Wikimedia Commons

During his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis declared that Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions, is now a saint. The first Roman Catholic canonization ceremony to take place in the United States was attended by 25,000 people. Serra is now the patron saint of California and of Hispanic Americans. This decision was celebrated by many, but it was also highly controversial. To Native Americans, Serra is far from a saint – his missions forced the local Indians to give up their culture and religion, made them do all of the work on the mission, whipped or branded those who were seen as disobedient, and even forced Indians to marry people the priests selected. Serra’s defenders insist he was protecting the Indians from worse treatment at the hands of the conquistadors, and that sainthood does not mean that a person is perfect. In response to the news, protesters vandalized the mission in Carmel where Serra was buried.

This all begs the question – who gets to decide who is a saint or not, and how is that decision made?

According to the book Why Do Catholics Do That by Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D., any person who goes to heaven is technically a saint. This is the way the authors of the Bible used the term. This means that technically what Pope Francis did was to declare that, in Catholic doctrine, St. Junipero Serra is in heaven with God. This is why Catholic and Orthodox Christians practice intercessory prayer. The idea is that saints are closer to God than you are, and they can pray to Him on your behalf, like a turbocharged prayer chain. This is also why the Archangel Michael and Angel Gabriel are considered saints.

In the early history of the Christian faith, those martyrs who died for the faith were the first to be venerated by the Church as saints, and later faithful Christian figures who had exemplified a life of “heroic virtue”, so-called “confessors”, were included as well. Often, these were figures who had either suffered and overcame hardship because of their faith, or who led admirable, meritorious lives.

However, the early Church’s process for determining who was a saint was… well… there really wasn’t one. Early celebrations of saints were a spontaneous, bottom-up, folk practice by individual Christians. The saints that are still honored from that period are the ones who were the most popular. This could be a problem, as sometimes we wound up with saints that might not have actually existed. Saint Brigid of Ireland is believed by some scholars to actually be a Christianized version of the pagan goddess Brigid, and celebrations of Saint Christopher were removed from the Catholic religious calendar after scholars concluded he was actually Saint Menas, “Christopher” (Christ-bearer) simply being a title people gave St. Menas after he died.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before church leaders decided it was high time somebody established some rules.

Blessing of the Colours by John Lavery

Because Bishops love rules.

In the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the 5th century AD, we see that bishops had taken over the process of determining sainthood. Each bishop had the authority to decide that somebody could be honored as a saint within their jurisdiction. It is from this basis that the various traditions of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches determining who is a saint evolved.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this process is called “glorification” and it begins when believers report posthumous miracles. After enough miracles have occurred to get the local bishop’s attention, the bishop (or, more usually, a group of bishops) will investigate the matter. If the bishops are sure that the individual was Orthodox, determine that he or she led an exemplary life, and confirm that the miracles are genuine, they will hold a service formally adding the person’s name to the Orthodox Calendar of Saints. It should be noted that the Eastern Orthodox Church also allows this whole process to be skipped if the individual was a martyr for the faith; this is why the last Tsar of Russia and his family are considered saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Similarly, churches in the Anglican Communion, such as the Church of England or the Episcopal Church, accept people as saints by a vote of the church leaders. Among the historical figures accepted as saints by Anglican churches are King Charles I of England, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.

Pope Francis image from Agencia Brasil

Of course, the church that has by far the highest bar to pass to become a saint is the Roman Catholic Church. The process of canonization for Catholic saints is a multi-step process that can take many years.

  1. Be dead for five years. The Catholic church likes to take its time making decisions regarding sainthood. As Johnson writes in his book, “You have to wait for the dust to settle… so that evidence will stand on its own, uncolored by personal affection or hostility.” However, the pope can waive the five-year requirement in extraordinary cases, as John Paul II did for Mother Teresa.
  2. Get proclaimed a “Servant of God” by your local bishop. This is harder than it sounds. Usually, a bishop has to receive a petition from his parishioners to begin the process, and then has to launch a formal investigation into the life of the individual. The bishop will look into anything and everything the candidate wrote or said and try to gather as many eyewitness accounts of the person’s life as possible.
  3. Be deemed venerable. Once the bishop has created a detailed biography of the Servant of God, he will present the candidate to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, who will then assign the case to a postulator. The postulator will gather even more information, and the body of the candidate will be dug up for examination by church officials. It is at this point that any relics are taken from the body. (Gross.) Eventually, once the congregation is satisfied, it will ask the pope to proclaim the candidate’s heroic virtue. If the pope approves, the person will be deemed “venerable”, and Catholics can pray for a miraculous sign from God that this person should be canonized.
  4. Be beatified. Beatification is one step below sainthood, and people who are beatified can be called “blessed”, as in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, as Mother Teresa is now formally known in the Catholic Church. In order to be beatified, one of two conditions has to have happened: (a) the person was a martyr who died for his or her faith, or (b) a posthumous miracle must have occurred because of the intercession of the candidate.
  5. At long last, be sainted by the Pope. This also requires a miracle, meaning that martyrs only need one miracle to achieve sainthood while a non-martyr needs two.

This is another reason the canonization of Junipero Serra was so controversial – he didn’t meet the “two miracle” requirement. Many people rankled at the perceived bending of the rules in Pope Francis’s declaration.

There is an exception to the above rules, though. In what is called Equipollent Canonization, a procedure introduced by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century, the Pope formally accepts a saint that was venerated at the grass-roots level the old-fashioned way, as the early Church had done. Equipollent Canonization was not to be taken lightly, though. In order for the Vatican to recognize such saints, the candidate had to have been honored in this way for a very long time, the accounts of the person’s life must be verified by historians to be a virtuous one, and there must be many, many years’ worth of recorded and accepted miracles. Again, Serra falls short of meeting these criteria.

Still, the Catholic Church insists that declarations of sainthood are infallible. Plus, in our modern age where it is much easier to use science to explain things that were once unknowable, miracles are harder to come by.

I suppose there is only one way to know for sure who is a saint or not…

Honestly? I don't want to know THAT badly.

Honestly? I don’t want to know THAT badly.