HALLOWEEN: FROM PAGAN RITUAL TO PARTY NIGHT
Is Halloween a goofy holiday, or what? I often wonder what people from other countries think when they come here and see us put our children into elaborate disguises
and send them out under cover of night to loot the neighborhood. Turns out, according to
Nicholas Rogers of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, not much, because
they often have their own version of the holiday.
In his popularly-written sociological study, Rogers traces the history of what he calls a “borderline festival,” marking the boundary between summer and winter, light and
dark, life and the spirit world, a brief time when normal reality shifts. And that altered
state has persisted through all the permutations Halloween has endured.
Rogers maintains Halloween has largely developed from the medieval holy days of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day (in England and Germany held on Nov. 1) to pray for
the recently dead to shorten their stay in purgatory and also to protect the living from
hauntings. The lighting of candles was part of the rites, and the wealthier parishioners
supplied snacks and doles to the poor as they went door to door to offer their prayers in
exchange. They carried a hollowed-out turnip lit from within by a candle, representing a
soul trapped in purgatory. Some believe All Souls’ Day was held on the date of Samhain
(pronounced sow-an, a harvest festival with strong supernatural associations) to
transform the popular pagan holiday into a Christian one, but in other European countries
the dates don’t match.
In addition, the liturgy of the day contained the reference of “the wise virgins awaiting the coming of the bridegroom,” sung by the male choir members veiled in the
manner of young women. Rogers perceives this as part of the social inversion common
to the season: choir boys pretended to be bishops, paupers became mayors, men dressed
up like women, and the rule of misrule became the order of the day and those not
participating invited abuse.
As time went on and as immigrants, largely the Scottish and Irish, brought their customs to America, going from door to door became more secular and rowdy and less
thconcerned with saving souls. Around the end of the 19 century, civic leaders wanted
less prankishness and more respectability and promoted fancy-dress parties for adults and
parlor entertainments for children.
By the 1920’s in America, Halloween was no longer solely considered an ethnic holiday but had become a fully American festival, with something for everyone. Rogers
believes this staying power derives from Halloween’s nature as a short span of altered
reality, a time for play, social inversion, misrule, parody, laughing at authority and at
things that normally frighten us. He draws the book to a close noting the huge retail
value of the holiday. He ponders if such exploitive commercialism will rob Halloween of
its charm. Myself, I think so long as human nature extends the confines we make for it,
so long as people have a norm, they will need to break out of it at least for a short period
of time and experience how it feels to be someone of a different social standing, gender,
or personality, and experience a little managed chaos.
Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, by Nicholas Rogers, available in LTCC
Written by Peggy Meyer, Library Assistant at Lake Tahoe Community College Library