Ancient Romans celebrated a holiday called Feralia on February 21. At first it was a simple day off to recover from the holiday of February 20 (Bougainvalia), and to take care of last minute shopping before the holiday of February 22 (Onsalia).
It was, coincidentally, the last day of the year according to the Roman calendar.
Over time it became a sacred day in its own right. It became a festival to honor the dead, and like most Roman holidays it involved some serious drinking. Feralia also resembled most other Roman holidays in that it outlasted the western Roman empire. The jolly men and women of the Mediterranean basin saw no reason to give up the riotous holiday, with all its drinking and orgies, despite countless reminders from an ascendant Christian church that drinking was bad (unless it was Jesus' blood) and orgies were worse.
At last, in the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV decided that the holiday was Christian after all, except that instead of honoring all the dead it should honor only dead saints, that instead of Feralia it should be called All Saints' Day, that instead of drinking and orgies it should be a day of prayer and meditation, and that instead of February 21 it should be observed on May 13.
The good peoples of the Christian world happily accepted the new name and date, but persisted in drinking and orgying. As punishment for this inappropriate enjoyment, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1, and unwittingly laid the foundation for our modern Halloween.
Hold that thought.
Since as early as the 5th century BC, the ancient Celts had considered October 31 the last day of summer. They called the day Samhain (rhymes with Clamhain), and they believed all the divisions between the world of the living and the world of the dead were dissolved for that brief period. They thought the dead used this window of opportunity to possess the souls of the living, and the thought scared the piss out of them.
A variety of bizarre rituals to ward off the dead accumulated around Samhain over the centuries, including the sacrificial burning of virgins (when any could be found).
When these Celtic rituals collided with the Christian All Saints' Day, all hell broke loose. People didn't know whether they should pray, drink, orgy, burn virgins, or what. They tried a lot of different combination: they got drunk and prayed, they burned virgins and got drunk, they prayed to have orgies and got drunk with virgins, they prayed then got drunk and had orgies with virgins.
Eventually they settled on sending their kids out in silly costumes to ask their neighbors for candy. This was intended to keep them out of the house while the drinking and orgies raged, but since everyone's doorbells kept ringing from everyone else's children, the drinking and orgies gradually faded away.
Of course, this brief outline only traces the development of Halloween as we know it in America. The holiday is still celebrated in countries all over the world in an astonishing number of ways.
In Bulgaria, for example, October 31 is a national holiday called Bulgerplutz. In rural districts, children dress up as kitchen utensils and dash from farm to farm tying chickens' feet together. Any unhappy farmer attempting to shoo the children away from his chickens will find himself pelted with manure and glass shards as the children sing playful Bulgerplutz carols. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead lasts from October 31 through November 2, which has long been a concern to students of the Mexican calendar. The celebration is a fusion of sixteenth-century Spaniards' All Souls' and All Saints' Days and the Aztec festival honoring Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the dead. (Mictecacihuatl was said to have died at birth as the result of complications relating to pronunciation.)
One can't help but marvel at the similarities between the Day of the Dead that arose in Meso-America and Kyrgyzstan's Day of the Very Sick (Nov 1), Papua New Guinea's Evening of the Emotionally Exhausted (Oct 31), and Vanuatu's Cardiovascular Appreciation Days (Oct 31 - Nov 2).
In Saudi Arabia, October 31 is Sandy Night. As soon as the sun sets, children scamper out into the desert and fill their home-made bags with sand. The holiday is believed to be derived from the ancient Bedouin tradition of sending children out to fill bags with sand.
In Chile, Halloween is infused with ancient Incan traditions. Fretful mothers extinguish the fires in their hearths for fear of attracting Spaniards while naughty children take their parents hostage and demand their weight in chocolate.
In Wittenberg, Germany, October 31 is celebrated as the day on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in 1517. Many of the town's children frolic giddily about, nailing Theses here and there with impish delight, while others try to catch and burn them as heretics.
Whatever your own tradition, enjoy Halloween.
( For all you parents - remember to sort your kids candy later tonight. It is not a crime to save all the good chocolate for yourself. Tell'em you have to sample it for poison.) -
Today in History -
October 31, 1926 -
Harry Houdini dies in room 401 of Grace Hospital in Detroit.
The escape artist was killed by diffuse peritonitis, after having undergone an emergency appendectomy.
Contrary to popular belief, the fatal appendicitis could not have been caused by a punch to the stomach.
October 31, 1950 -
John Franklin Candy, the great Canadian comedian and actor,
was born on this date.
October 31, 1993 -
Federico Fellini, considered as one of the most influential and widely revered film-makers of the 20th century, passed away on this date.
I'd have written more but I'm way behind in slipping razor blades in apples.
And so it goes.