Halloween: Holiday That Fits America

COMMENT

October 24, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

For a variety of reasons, Halloween has become quite a controversial holiday in Carroll County.

Even though sociologists have labeled Halloween a "degenerate" holiday -- one whose contemporary celebration has little to do with its historical roots -- the festivities of this particular holiday seem particularly troublesome for many of the county's parents and towns.

A vocal segment of the population objects to celebrating Halloween because it feels it is a pagan holiday that glorifies Satan and devil-worship.

Others object to trick-or-treating -- and have succeeded in convincing the governments of Manchester, New Windsor and Taneytown to prohibit door-to-door begging for candy in their towns.

Others criticize the schools' month-long preoccupation with Halloween costumes and decorations that takes place every October. The same group also objects to the emphasis on consuming -- usually in one sitting -- large amounts of sweets and sugar-laden confections.

There is, also, concern that Halloween brings out the worst of behaviors; pranks turn into destructive vandalism and disturbed people place pins and glass in candy and fruit.

Lastly, the crass commercialization of this holiday, like so many others, seems to generate a separate chorus of complaints.

Because of this general unhappiness over what I always thought was a benign holiday, I conducted a quick research project on American Halloween observances.

Halloween, it turns out, is a good metaphor for this country: Its origins were in the British Isles, it was influenced by Roman and then Christian practices, waves of immigrants added their influences and it has evolved into an occasion to have a good time.

Halloween's origins can be traced to prehistoric Celtic tribes that occupied England, Scotland and Ireland before the birth of Christ.

Oct. 31 was the end of the Celtic year. For these agrarian people, the end of the summer (Samhain -- or "summer's end") marked the beginning of a season of darkness and cold. The ancient Celts used this day as a festival honoring the harvest as well as a day to contend with the evil spirits and the dead.

The Celts believed on the last day of the year the spirits of the people who died in the previous year were allowed to visit their relatives to find warmth and comfort before the arrival of winter. They also believed that while these spirits were wandering the land, they played tricks on the living.

To appease these tricksters, the Druids -- Celtic priests -- would sacrifice humans and horses.

After conquering Britain, the Romans outlawed the sacrifices, but they could not stamp out the old pagan practice of sacrificing horses, which continued for several centuries.

The Romans introduced their harvest festival of Pomona to the Celts, who added the eating of nuts and apples into their celebrations.

The Christian observance of All Hallows' Day began in about the fourth century as an observance in the spring to honor martyrs. By the seventh or eighth century, saints were added because the calendar had fewer days than there were saints to venerate.

To offset the residual pagan celebration of Samhain, Pope Gregory III in the eighth century moved the holiday to Nov. 1.

During the Middle Ages, witchcraft cults used Halloween along with Walpurgis Eve in May as an occasion to celebrate Satan and mock the Christian feasts of saints. Even though these cults died out, they left the legacy of witches, broomsticks and black cats.

Non-religious folk customs involving spirits also insinuated themselves into Halloween celebrations, particularly in Britain and Ireland.

Supposedly since the spirits, who could influence the future, were walking the earth on Halloween, villagers used various divinations to encourage these roaming spirits to foretell the future. Many of these customs had to do with choosing a spouse or determining who would die.

In colonial America, Halloween was not widely observed. If it was, the early American settlers celebrated the holiday with corn-popping parties, taffy pulls and hayrides.

However, with the large-scale Irish immigration in the 1840s, the observance of Halloween spread in the United States. The Irish brought the custom of placing jack o'lanterns out on Halloween. And by the late 1800s, most American communities had adopted the custom of trick-or-treating.

Begging for candy resembles an old Irish Halloween practice of going door-to-door and asking for money for a feast to honor Muck Olla, a Druid deity. Supposedly, generous donors were guaranteed wealth and threats were made against the stingy.

Some degree of rowdiness was tolerated in the late 19th century. Pranks such as hiding animals, changing street signs and soaping windows were considered to be the work of the fairies the Irish brought to America.

By the 20th century, the pranks had turned into lawlessness and were not tolerated. In order to prevent damage but maintain the spirit of merriment, communities organized Halloween parties.

It is clear that through the ages, Halloween has been a time of fun. There is no reason why that practice can't continue in Carroll County.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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