creating community through celebration

The Pumpkin’s Roots - October 2008

 Halloween is a celebration filled with ritual and custom, but I’m guessing that the legions of pumpkin carvers and costumed ghouls who populate the October 31st darkness have scant awareness of where it all comes from or what it all means. For instance the word “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve” - but the eve of what? And then of course, there’s the Irish connection to your pumpkin. Let’s take a quick look at some of the fascinating background to this festive day.

All Hallows’ Eve refers to the evening before the Roman Catholic feast, All Saint’s Day. This is a day which recognizes those souls who are presumed under Catholic dogma to have ascended to heaven and are recognized as saints. The following day, All Souls’ Day is for the rest of the deceased whose final disposition is not quite so clear-cut. Like many traditions that have survived into modern times, this one can be dated back to medieval Europe, the setting of this year’s Christmas Revels. Also, like so many traditions, this one rests on much older customs and has grafted on ritual from various sources.

Samhain (pronounced sawin ) was the ancient Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest season. Named after a month in the Celtic calendar, it was a three day Gaelic festival that marked the beginning of Winter, and the new year. In Wiccan and various neopagan traditions, it is seen as a time when the veil that separates the worlds of the living and the dead becomes very thin, fostering magic and allowing the communion of souls to take place.

Coincidentally, this was precisely the time to which Pope Gregory IV in 837 chose to relocate the feast of All Saints (from May 13th), and so an existing tradition was neatly subsumed into the dominant paradigm.

As colonization spread the liturgical calendar to the New World, the local ways of venerating the departed began to color the All Hallows celebration. The Día de los Muertos celebration which follows Hallows’ Eve in Mexico features the calaveras – ubiquitous depictions of skeletons engaged in everyday activities which emphasize the connection between the living and the dead. Graveyards are visited and decorated with marigolds, adding the color orange to the spectrum of the celebration.

To find the source of the Jack O’ Lantern, we have to go to Ireland. There a legendary character named “Stingy Jack” was condemned by the devil to wander the night using a hollowed out turnip with a candle inside to light his way. This item, along with apple bobbing, and bonfires found its way into the Samhain harvest celebration. With the Irish migration to America, the easier-to-carve pumpkin, already an icon of the harvest season, supplanted the turnip and the modern Jack O’ Lantern was born.

If you’re planning to go door-to-door in costume this Halloween, you are carrying forward the English guising tradition. In a variety of contexts, from Wassailing, to Plow Monday rituals, to the Welsh Mari Llwyd, costumed residents of the British Isles traditionally visit neighboring houses asking for various “treats”, often while threatening playful “tricks” should the homeowners fail to come across satisfactorily. It is conventionally understood that the very act of disguising protects the perpetrators from blame or retribution.

Like so many festivals we celebrate today, Halloween has taken on modern trappings. Costumes and symbols are as likely to be drawn from Hollywood or political life as from the grave; traditional bonfires have been re-envisioned in the form of lavish lawn displays; and guising has been made kid-friendly. But lying under it all are the old customs which express the deeper experiences of life versus death, dark versus light - traditions which, like roots, lie buried in the ground but may still rise to the surface to bloom in modern celebrations -like Halloween.

- David Parr, Artistic Director