Thursday, October 23, 2014

Samhain, souling, guising and Shakespeare: A brief history of Halloween

The leaves are turning, the temperature is dropping, most of the summer crops have gone to seed and the days are growing shorter, that can only mean one thing: It is almost time for Samhain (pronounced "sah-win").  What?  You don’t celebrate Samhain?  But it is the end of the harvest season, and time to check your stores for the coming winter, and then on the 31st dress in scary masks and make a large bonfire to attract insects which lure in the bats all to appease the spirits rising from the dead so they don’t bring sickness and ruin next year’s crops.  Well, what do you call that?

Yes, that’s pretty much where it all started.  It was a Gaelic pagan tradition that evolved with the spread of Christianity into All Hallows’ Eve that has its roots in the practice of “souling.”  Indigent villagers would go house-to-house on Hallowmas (November 1) and in return for some form of confectionary, would pray for the family’s deceased members on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd).  The practice of souling or begging, started in medieval Ireland, but spread through Britain and as far eastward as Italy.  It infected Western Culture even to the point of a 1593 Shakespeare reference in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Speed accuses his master of "puling (whimpering) like a beggar at Hallowmas."

The tradition that would eventually become “Trick-or-Treating” immigrated to North America with the Irish influx during the great Potato Famine in the mid-19th Century.  But it would take generations before it would take the form we all have come to know.  The first “American” celebrations, dating to the turn of the 20th Century, were small parades of children dressed in costumes giving performances in the early evening.  This was known as guising, and quickly became the genesis of receiving treats from merchants and onlookers as a reward for their songs and dances.  The trick part came much later, with the first known print reference to the term “trick or treat” in 1930.  Soon the practice of costumed children receiving sweets grew (well, except during the sugar shortages of WWII) and spread from North America back across the ocean into its ancestral Europe.   
Adults, not wanting to be left out of the fun, started “costuming” on Halloween at their favorite bars and pubs.  Soon rewards for the “Best,” “Scariest,” and “Most Original” costumes eroded the practice of donning funny makeup and tattered clothes and grew into an American-sized industry of professionally created costumes that range from gruesome, to political lampoon, to the aesthetically sublime, to the raciest of vice and perversion.  And with the combination of intoxicants and the free-spirited absence of inhibitions from the anonymous disguises, Halloween has spawned a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere of debauchery in many of the most popular watering holes.
The Americanized Halloween (or Beggars’ Night as it is referred to in parts of Ohio, Iowa and Massachusetts) is looked on with suspicion by many European countries, and the expressed threat of “tricks” have spurred some police forces in the United Kingdom to threaten to prosecute parents who allow their children to carry out the "trick" element.  In other parts of Europe, the commerce-driven importation of Halloween is seen with even more skepticism, and in light of numerous destructive or illegal "tricks," suspicions about this trick-or-treat game and Halloween in general have been further raised.

It is sometimes fun to pull back the curtains of innocence and peek at the naked roots of our ever evolving culture.  A simple children’s holiday that rose from the superstitions of zombie-like mischief-makers, to medieval pay-for-prayer begging, to guising on parade, and finally the debaucheries of over-imbibed adults, our commercialized version of Halloween now dominates the month of October and marks the onset of the holiday season.

Happy Samhain, everyone! 

1 comment:

  1. When all other superstitions and apparitions have receded into the vaguest memory this one is likely to survive. Any excuse for a legalised beg for confectionary with menaces.