Halloween (Allhallows Even) was observed by some churches with religious services. However, most persons regarded it as a secular festival. In its strictly religious aspect, it is known as the vigil of Hallowmas or All Saints' Day, observed on November 1 by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
The festival of Halloween is based on a combination of the Christian commemoration of the departed faithful (All Saints' Day) with the pre-Christian Celtic feast associated with a celebration of the end of summer and the Celtic New Year. Celts who lived in what is now known as Ireland, Scotland and parts of Great Britain celebrated their new year that began November 1. Allhallows' Even was observed on the evening of October 31st. Around 800 A.D., the day became known among Christians as Allhallomas which eventually changed to All Hallow E'en, or Halloween.
Celtic peoples adopted Christianity quickly, easily, and strongly. The conversion of Celtic peoples did not, however, keep them from celebrating some of their old customs. Attempts to replace the year-end custom in the old Celtic calendar were only partially successful. Some of our Halloween traditions date back to these early times.
Summer's end and the celebration of a good harvest has always been an important event in the life of agrarian peoples. Samhain "Hallowday" or Samfuin (sam + fuin) summer's end, marked the end of the yearly cycle and was celebrated with both religious and agrarian rites. It was the period for threshing and of food preparation for the winter season. On that evening, so it was believed, present, past, and future became one. Celts gave thanks for the safe return of their cattle to winter quarters, and invoked their gods for prosperity and good crops for the coming year.
Samhain was both the "end of summer" and a commemoration of the dead. The spirits of the departed were believed to visit their kinsmen in search of warmth and good cheer as winter approached. It was a time when evil, as well as good, spirits returned to the living. Fairies were believed to migrate from one home to another, and Hallowe'en was the time when humans kidnapped by elfin folk could reclaim their lost loves or relatives.
Jack-O'-Lanterns were scooped out of turnips with skull-like faces carved into them. This may reflect the ancient custom of placing skulls around the tribal fire to keep evil demons away. Bobbing for apples is a relic of the "Ordeal by Water," signifying the passage of the soul to the hereafter over the waters separating them. To encourage fertility, the Halloween cat, the black cat, became a familiar symbol of Halloween. Some believed that if you held a mirror and ate an apple at the same time, you would see the reflection of your future mate in the mirror.
Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and England, brought secular Halloween customs to the U.S. but the festival did not become popular until the latter part of the 19th century, at the time of the mass immigration from Ireland after 1840. Halloween grew and changed over the years, with people, including those of other ethnic groups, adding (or subtracting) things from it. The association with ghosts and spirits goes back to older pagan customs. Germans took to celebrating Halloween with gusto. For them dressing up reminded them of "Fasnacht," "Karneval" and "Fasching" in the old country with masks and costumes; and witches and black cats reminded them of Walpurgisnacht and of fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel."
Witches entered Halloween in the 19th century. One of the most important witches Sabbaths was held on Halloween. Witches were alleged to fly to these meetings on broomsticks, accompanied by black cats, who were their constant companions. Magical rites and ceremonies were performed by witches from all over the region at a sacred spot.
It is to the role of the witches in Halloween that Germans could relate especially well. The most famous sacred spot for witches was in the Harz* mountain region of Germany. Until the 18th century, maps of Germany showed witches hovering over this spot, the Blocksberg/Brocken. For Germans Halloween blended with the "Walpurgisnacht," and the Witches Sabbath on the night leading into May 1st. On that day, bonfires, the Maifeuer (May fires) are burnt in the old country, to drive away the witches and the horned god, the devil.
Halloween, as we know it in America, with all the folk stories and urban legends, is a distinctly American phenomenon, with the "Trick or Treat"-bit appearing after 1930. The "trick or treat"-custom resembles an old Irish practice associated with Halloween Eve. Groups of peasants went from house to house demanding food and other gifts in preparation for the evening's festivities. Prosperity was assured for the liberal donors and threats were made against the stingy ones. A similar custom was practiced, and still is in some areas, by Germans. Knocking on doors for food and drink is practiced during the Karneval Season or at New Years. Best known is the custom of the Star Singers on Epiphany, carolers going from door to door, singing and collecting for poor relief or overseas missions.
Pranks such as wandering groups of celebrants blocking doors of houses, carrying away gates and plows, tapping on windows and throwing vegetables at doors (corn candy), also struck a familiar note. In rural areas and small towns, especially of Bavaria and Austria, tricks and pranks are to this day practiced in such customs as "stealing the Maibaum" in Bavaria.
The U.S.-style Halloween was returned by the Irish and the Scots to the countries of origin and became popular in England since the late 1960s with one exception, "Trick or Treat," even the phrase was not then used (although it seems to become used now). Nor was it accepted that failure to offer a "treat" was grounds for trickery, pranks and even vandalism.
Halloween has also entered Germany. It is celebrated at Burg Frankenstein where a connection between the castle and Mary Shelley's novel has been established. (See "In Search Of Frankenstein" by Radu Florescu, Robson Books Ltd. London; and "Burg Frankenstein - Mythen, Märchen und das Monster" by Walter Scheele, Fouque-Verlag, Egelsbach).
Today some families and even parishes hold group celebrations, often with costumes of the saints, poor souls or famous Catholics and other elements, to reinforce the Christian side of Halloween's origins.
The tendency to manipulate (often for commercial gain) rather than to celebrate folk festivals reflects the growing influence of a rational outlook on life and the progressive loss of folk vitality. The secular character of American culture is reflected as well in the public neglect of the religious significance of Halloween. Only the children with their costumes, masks and the "trick or treat" custom, keep the spooky and irrational--even if only pretending--from becoming another casualty of modernity.
Witches and black cats, ghosts and Frankensteins, ghosts' heads carved from pumpkins, candles, bobbing for apples, the "trick or treat" custom, candy and food, masks, parties and innocent little pranks also express joy in the present and the life-giving harvest that ensured the future.
Cider, Lemon juice, cinnamon sticks and other herbs will make a wonderful treat. For a bewitching cold or hot cider brew add chunks of dry ice to the cider, after mixing it with cold water. The mixture will bubble and steam and provide a delicious spooky treat.
"Chiller," a spooky album from Erich Kunzel with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra is available as a CD from Musical Heritage with selections from Lloyd-Webber: The Phantom of the Opera, Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain; Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust; Waxman: The Bride of Frankenstein; Goldsmith: Poltergeist and much more, including digital sound effects.
*The Harz Mountains, 2,000 square kilometers of untouched nature, with woods, wild romantic valleys, bizarre caves, quiet streams and roaring waterfalls that inspired famous poets, such as Goethe and Heine it is an area with sagas and legends shrouded in mystery.
Max Kade German-American Center
Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis