A very dear Latvian ex-workmate of mine used to rail against Halloween. “It’s not Latvian tradition!” she would exclaim. However this same workmate loved French wine and sushi. Somehow or other, it’s very hard to imagine people in the Latvian SSR scoffing sushi as they spilled cabernet sauvignon on their prized copy of Das Kapital. Similarly I doubt that people during what even Latvian Wikipedia calls “Autoritārais Kārļa Ulmaņa režīms” (Karlis Ulmanis’ authoritarian regime) an era beloved of Latvian nationalists, were that bothered with burgers, pizzas and pasta either. So she was fairly choosy about which non-Latvian traditions she observed.
In reality, what she really meant was that “it’s not a foreign tradition that Latvians care to celebrate.” That I’m more cool with. In a homogenised world, it gets boring when you have the same festivals celebrated everywhere. After all, Midsummer, a fairly big festival in much of continental Europe, is basically ignored in Ireland. When I lived in Kazakhstan, it actually made a refreshing change to have celebrations like Kurban Ait and Nauryz and to have Christmas on 7 January.
Still, ignorance of Halloween and its origins does rule. I hear many misconceptions about this day. The main ones being
1) It’s an American festival.
2) It’s commercial nonsense.
3) Combining the above (it’s American commercial rubbish!)
4) It’s a kiddie festival
5) Trick or treat and stuff like that are just imports from the USA.
6) It’s not a religious festival.
All the above is untrue, or at worst, very dubious.
The origins of Halloween are the same as most major festivals of the year: pagan festivals, often held around the time of solstices or equinoxes. Ancient people celebrated a Winter Solstice festival. In Rome for example, this was the Saturnalia from 17-23 December. In other cultures this had different names, but it basically celebrated the birthday of the Sun God – the return of light after a period of darkness.
When Christianity became the dominant religion in the decaying Roman Empire in the fourth century, it effectively took over most of the existing pagan festivals, giving them a Christian twist. This practice of adopting, tweaking and Romanising existing customs had already proved hugely successful in expanding the Roman Empire. It made Roman rule more palatable to locals. It’s much easier to win people over by telling them “You’re not wrong, you do the same as us, just slightly differently” than it is to scrap all their cultural events and replace them with completely new ones. So the birthday of the Sun God became the birthday of Jesus, the new light of the world.
Christmas wasn’t celebrated until well after 300 years after Christ’s death and indeed, early religious types weren’t that keen on celebrating birthdays anyway. Even as a hardcore atheist, I do find the whole Christian Christmas thing odd given that there are only 3 birthday celebrations even mentioned in the Bible, none of them related to Christ and all of them involving some kind of murder.
What of the others? Easter similarly, is just a repackaged version of festivals celebrating the Goddess of the Dawn, Eostre, in Germanic cultures. This festival usually occurred around the time of the spring equinoxe. Midsummer is actually the festival I’ve the most respect for. It doesn’t prat about pretending to be some kind of Christian festival. It’s pure pagan tradition in all its glory.
And finally to Halloween. Halloween is, at its heart, a Celtic festival. It came from Ireland and Scotland, not the USA. Before the 19th century, Halloween was virtually unknown in the U.S. It was only the wave of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century that brought their traditions with them, meaning that a major Irish festival, like Saint Patrick’s Day, became celebrated more stateside.
All the Halloween traditions go back to ancient times. The festival originally marked the coming of the dark times. The door was open between the real world and the spirit world. The safest way to protect yourself from all those ghosts and bad spirits, people thought, was to dress yourself up so that you looked like a ghost. Similarly, to keep those hungry ghosts from getting mad at you and breaking into your house, people left food outside their houses.
As for the lack of Christianity, well that’s obviously not true. The name Halloween itself is just a shortened form of All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Evening, later shortened to Halloweve or Hallowe’en. The day before 1 November, All Saints’ Day, the Christian church having plagiarised that day from paganism, just as they stole just about everything else.
Growing out of these earlier traditions, it became customary for poor people to go around houses, asking for alms by performing or singing, from this the custom of trick or treating arose. One of the main tweaks made in the USA is that the hollowed out turnips from Scotland or Ireland became pumpkins in the USA. When I celebrated Halloween as a kid in the 80s in Ireland, turnips were still used.
The one remaining point concerns the commercialisation argument. A lot of people go on complaining about the commercialisation of festivals like Halloween and Christmas, as though this was some kind of new or modern thing. In reality, where you find a festival, especially a religious one, those with an eye for making money will never be far away. One of the main Roman festivals, the Saturnalia, was one of the busiest times of the year for local businesses, who sold animals for sacrifice and other goodies to help festival revellers enjoy the day. Hell, even in the bible itself, there’s a bit about Jesus chasing merchants out of the temple, overturning tables in a mad fury.
When I did the conversation clubs in a certain Riga language centre, we’d gamely try and do a Halloween themed one every year. It never worked. For example, I’m posing as the invisible man
in the photo at the bottom of this link but as you can see no one else really made an effort, so after a couple of years, we just gave up.
Despite all that, none of that will stop me tipping me glass tonight to a good oul Irish festival…