“Dear Librarian…” My continuing struggle against one of the oldest enemies in Los Angeles… IGNORANCE!
Boris K. of Beverly Hills asks, “Dear Librarian, what’s up with Halloween anyway? Is it just another bullshit commercial opportunity like Christmas, or is there an evil cosmic significance to October 31st?”
Boris, any holiday with decorations on sale at Wal-Mart is undoubtedly a bullshit commercial opportunity, even if some Christians prefer “Jesusween“, and my pagan friends are busy brushing up on their spells. But the roots of Halloween go back a long way, certainly further than any religion practiced today, and in many more directions. In astronomical measures, Halloween falls between the autumnal equinoxe on 21 September and the winter solstice on 21 December. Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder, was symbolized by a chariot wheel with eight spokes, two representing the solstices, two the equinoxes, and the other four the beginning of each season in Northern Europe. Today these feast days are known as Imbolc (1 February), Beltane (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August) and Samhain (1 November). For the Irish, Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) was the most important of the four seasonal feast days, marking the first day of winter and the time when crops were harvested, and the animals brought down from the pastures to be housed or slaughtered for the season. The holiday was so important that Sir James Frazer, a founder of anthropology, considered Samhain the New Year (which was also celebrated on the vernal equinoxe in March or Beltane in May) during the Celtic revival of the 19th Century. Samhain is still a major holiday in Ireland, where the last Monday in October is a public holiday, children have a week off from school, and people duck for apples and leap through bonfires, as they do around Beltane (May Day). In Wales people would mark a stone and throw it in the fire; they would die within a year if the stone wasn’t found the next day. In Scotland children would dress in costumes and go door to door, performing for the adults who would reward them with sweets or money. In England the old traditions, especially fire-jumping, were moved a few days to Guy Fawkes Day on 5 November, until American commercialism made Halloween a global holiday after the 1980s.
Halloween is short for All Hallows’ Eve, the night of 31 October that takes place before the Catholic holiday of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day on 1 November. The connection between All Saints’ Day and Samhain is not as strong as neopagans and Irish would have you believe; in the Byzantine roots of Orthodoxy, the feast day of All Saint’s was the first Sunday after Pentecost, in the early spring. Pentecost itself was based on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, in the late spring. The first official All Saints’ Day in the Roman Catholic Church was celebrated on 13 May 609 by Pope Boniface IV, on the day he consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, the first Roman temple to be converted to a Christian church. In the old religion, this date had been the last day of the Lemuralia, a feast day when Romans exorcised the demons of their dead. The story behind the Lemuralia goes to the very beginnings of Rome, commemorating the burial of Remus by his brother Romulus (who had either killed Remus in a fit of anger, or ordered one of his generals to.) Like many other pagan holidays, Boniface used the Lemuralia to instead honor the Virgin Mary and the many Christian martyrs whose bones were brought up from the catacombs and placed in the new altar of the Pantheon. And he was not the first; Saint Ephrem had celebrated a holiday to the Christian martyrs even earlier on 13 May, in the middle of the 4th Century, just a generation after Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine. A day to celebrate all the martyrs became necessary after so many were killed by Diocletian, there were no longer enough days in the year for individual saints’ days. That Boniface IV was officially recognizing this day two centuries later seems likely.
All Saints’ Day became a national holiday under my 35th great-grandfather, the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI. Leo the Wise was a prolific writer, and his homilies survived his empire by a millennium. By then it was a common motif that the dead martyrs of the Christian church would speak through imaginary dialogues with the judges who had condemned them. The first was written by Proclus Lycaeus in the 5th Century, a neoplatonist in Constantinople who Leo would undoubtedly have studied. So Leo was essentially an early zombie author; after his writing was so renowned that after his death, people even put his name on fake predictions of the future. He had attempted to dedicate a church to his deceased wife, Theophano, undoubtedly feeling guilty (and in political crisis) when she died in a nunnery (akin to a prison) in 897, while Leo lived openly with his mistress Zoe. The Eastern Byzantine Church denied permission for this dedication, and instead he dedicated the church to all saints, including saints who had not been martyred (such as his estranged wife) in the hope she would become a saint very quickly, as she did.
Confused yet? A half-century earlier another ancestor of mine, the Holy Roman Emperor Louis “the Pious”, had made All Saints’ Day an official Day of Obligation on 1 November 835. He didn’t come up with the idea, but was convinced by Pope Gregory IV. Gregory had gotten the idea from his namesake, Pope Gregory III, but here the trail goes cold; there is no sure reason why either Gregory was interested in moving All Saints’ Day other than a mutual hatred of Iconoclasm and pagan holidays; ironically, by moving All Saints’ Day (and Halloween with it) away from the Lemuralia, they moved it directly onto Samhain, a holiday they knew nothing about (since both Gregorys were from the Mediterranean area), which has provided the pagan Halloween we celebrate today. The roots of Halloween are as much French, Italian and Syrian as Celtic or Irish.
Halloween was revived in the United States by Celtic immigrants, just as Samhain was revived in Scotland and Ireland during the 19th Century. I won’t bore you with how we took our native squash, the pumpkin, and created that bullshit commercial opportunity you mentioned initially, as that made a nice segue into Thanksgiving by the early 20th Century, a parabola also followed by Christmas in this country. Add in the Southwestern influence of the Day of the Dead from Mexico, the Catholic holiday of All Souls’ Day on 2 November that celebrated all the honored family dead not as officially venerated as the saints of All Saints’ Day, and throw in yet another influence, a month-long Aztec festival in late summer dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, now represented by Catrina, the Queen of the Underworld (RIP Susan Tyrrell). By the end of the 20th Century you have Castro Street.
I hope that answers your question, Boris, and don’t drink any orange beer.