Halloween’s historical roots

Eric Sparling
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And fake fear as avoidance of death

Mount Allison University's chaplain, Rev. John Perkin, says the origins of Halloween are shrouded in mystery.

SACKVILLE, NB – Halloween wasn’t always a horror-fest, according to Mount Allison University’s chaplain.

Rev. John Perkin spoke with the Amherst Daily News about the historical origins of the festival.

“They’re a bit shrouded in mystery,” said Perkin about the roots of Halloween.

The minister said three different traditions lent their rituals to what would later become a modern rite.

Samhain was a Celtic tradition probably dating from the 8th century, but continuing through until the 12th century, according to Perkin. It was a harvest festival; a recognition of the shortening of days, and a time when cattle were gathered.

“It’s the end of the summer,” he said.

And the supernatural had some role to play. Fortune-telling, for example, was a part of the celebration.

All Saints Day and All Souls Day, Nov. 1, had superseded Samhain by the 12th century, said Perkin, although its origins were hundreds of years earlier in Rome.

“(It’s) a commemoration of the dead,” he said. “We are reminded of our mortality in a festive way.”

One of the traditions that developed was the collection and consumption of soul cakes, according to the chaplain. Groups of people, often poor, would go door-to-door singing. They would pray for the souls of homeowners’ loved ones – souls trapped in purgatory, awaiting ascendance to Heaven – in return for food.

By the 16th century, animosity in England towards Roman Catholicism created resistance to the festival, although it was still practiced in rural areas.

The third factor was the creation of Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5, in the wake of that Catholic’s failed attempt to blow up Parliament. It became a tradition in Protestant England to play pranks on Catholics.

Perkin called the collision of memorializing the dead, asking for food at doors and playing pranks a “perfect storm” that led to the core traditions of modern Halloween. Turnips that used to be carved and made into lanterns to memorialize the soul of a departed person became Jack-o-lanterns on this side of the ocean, where pumpkins grew.

When Halloween sprang up in North American in the 19th century, it had been largely separated from its religious, spiritual or political origins. In fact, the chaplain said it stands out as a festival that is neither religious or political.

Organizations: Mount Allison University, Amherst Daily News

Geographic location: England, Rome

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