Halloween (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
HALLOWEEN. Halloween (also Hallowe'en) is thought to have derived from a pre-Christian festival known as Samhain (pronounced "Sah-wen") celebrated among the Celtic peoples. The various peoples whom we now refer to as "Celts" once lived across Europe, but in time came to inhabit the areas known today as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall. Modern Irish, Welsh, and Scots peoples are the descendants of these peoples, as are their Gaelic languages.
Samhain was the principal feast day of the year; it was the New Year's Day of a year that began on 1 November. Traditionally, bonfires were lit as part of the celebration. It was believed that the spirits of those who had died during the previous twelve months were granted access into the otherworld during Samhain. Thus, spirits were said to be traveling on that evening, as the Celtic day was counted from sundown to sundown.
Scholars know little about the actual practices and beliefs associated with Samhain. Most accounts were not written down until centuries after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity (c. 300 C.E.), and then by Christian monks recording ancient sagas. From the evidence, we know that Samhain was a focal point of the yearly cycle, and that traditions of leaving out offerings of food and drink to comfort the wandering spirits had joined the bonfire custom. Also, the tradition of mummingressing in disguise and performing from home to home in exchange for food or drink, as well as pranking, perhaps in imitation of the wandering spirits, or simply as a customary activity found throughout Europead become part of the occasion. With the acceptance of Christianity, the dates of the pre-Christian festivals were used as occasions for church feast and holy days. The first day of November became, in the sixth century, the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows. Many of the folk traditions surrounding this occasion continued, and the Eve of All Hallows, Hallow Evening, has become conflated into the word "Hallowe'en." In the ninth century, 2 November was assigned the Feast of All Souls, a day set aside for prayers for all the faithful departed who had died during the previous year.
Halloween was brought to North America with Irish and British colonists, although it was not widely observed until the large influx of European immigrants in the nineteenth century, especially the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s and thereafter. In the United States, Hallowe'en, celebrated on 31 October, was a time for parties and pranking. As a festival of autumn, the fruits, vegetables, and foods associated with it are those of the harvest. Games were and are still played with apples, and the primary symbol of Halloween is the jack-o'-lantern, the great, carved pumpkin. Likewise, both apple pie and pumpkin pie are commonly served.
Samhain in Ireland
In Ireland, however, Halloween is much more a harvest festival than it is in the United States, where Thanksgiving has become the official day of thanks for abundance. As Samhain, November Eve was one of the four great quarter days of the year, each one marking the beginning of a new season. Samhain also marked the start of a new year. Halloween commands a place of honor in Ireland today greater than in the United States. And in fact it functions much like Thanksgiving does here. Family meals and a gathering of relatives are common. There is pranking throughout the season, and Halloween rhyming, in which young people go from door to door for weeks in advance of 31 October, present a rhyme or perform a song of some sort, in return for nuts, apples, or money. The money is spent on fireworks. Also well in advance of the actual day, lanterns are carved out of large turnips, called swedes, or rutabegas in the United States. These are given a face and a handle, and are carried about or set on walls to create a spooky atmosphere. When the old tradition of the turnip lantern was brought to the new world, settlers found the already hollow pumpkin to be preferable to the hard turnip, and so the pumpkin replaced the turnip in the United States. But the pumpkin is a fruit introduced to Europeans by Native Americans and is not native to Ireland, Great Britain, or the rest of Europe.
By carving a face on a turnip or a pumpkin, one transforms the organic item into a cultural one. The jack-o'-lantern is the wandering spirit of a man who was refused entry into either heaven or hell in the afterlife. He is condemned to wander this earth, carrying a lantern to guide his way. He is a trickster; he will lead hapless souls who follow his light to no good. The turnip lantern is said to represent the spirits of the deadhosts. The organic
Divination and Halloween food come together in the apple tarts (pies) and the cakes known as barm brack. Barm brack means speckled bread. It is a corn loaf, and it is baked with tokens inside, usually a ring, but also a thimble, or a button. To get the ring means you will be married; the button suggests bachelorhood for a man, and a thimble, spinsterhood for a woman. There may be other tokens as well. The apple tart is also baked with charms, usually a coin (preferably silver). This means good luck for the recipient. These food customs are widespread in Irelandne sees the bakeshops advertising their apple tarts and barm bracks "with rings and mottoes." Likewise, in the supermarkets, quantities of apples, hazelnuts, peanuts in the shell (called monkeynuts), and even coconuts are displayed alongside soft drinks and false faces.
Many are the divination games and rites of Halloween. It is said, for instance, that one should peel an apple continuously, so that the peel is in one long piece, and then toss it over one's left shoulder. The peel will land and form the initial of one's future love. Typically, these games are played by girls, to whom the indoor, domestic, nurturing realm is given, while the adolescent boys collect bonfire materials and engage in games of macho daring with firecrackers. Halloween is in these ways very gendered.
According to some accounts, the Halloween supper has featured a roast fowl or even meat, but as the day before a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, Halloween has traditionally been a day of abstinence from meat. The dishes most associated with Halloween in Irelandolcannon, champ, and boxtyre all made from root vegetables and earthy harvests such as potatoes and cabbage. Champ is mashed potatoes, frequently with leeks, and served with a pool of melted butter in the top. Colcannon is potatoes and cabbage. Boxty is mashed potatoes mixed with grated raw potatoes, onion, and cabbage, which are then boiled, cut into portions and fried.
These traditional foods are emblematic of Halloween for many in Ireland. Sometimes, portions were left out for the fairies. In an article published in 1958, K. M. Harris quotes a man who recalls his mother putting salt on the head of each child to prevent them from being taken away by the "wee people" on Halloween. He also recounts her placing a thimble-full of salt on each plate. If the salt fell down that person would die in the next twelve months. These beliefs indicate the continued association of food with the supernatural, and perhaps echo the "old" new year's day of Samhain in the idea that what happens on this night affects the next twelve months.
Periods of transition and seasonal change frequently are felt to be times when the barriers between the natural and the supernaturaletween our world and the otherworldre opened. During such times, spirits and otherworldly creatures such as fairies are especially active. They are dangerous and must be appeased; thus the offerings of food. But they are also tricksters, and can be imitated, thus lending an air of inversion to Halloween.
Halloween in the United States
In the United States, 31 October has become a major celebration that appeals to adults as well as children, as shown by the elaborate homemade and store-bought decorations people use to decorate their homes, and also by the adult street festivals, masquerades, and parties found all over the United States. Commercially, Halloween has become second only to Christmas in the amount of revenue it generates.
Ironically, by the mid-twentieth century, Halloween in the United States had become almost exclusively a children's event. The custom of trick-or-treating (the American version of Halloween rhyming) seems to have been introduced in the 1930s as an alternative to the children's pranking activitiesometimes dangerous, such as logs in the road; always a nuisance (Tuleja, 1994). Trick-ortreating became a widespread activity after World War II. While treats could include apples and homemade sweets, the favored treat was commercially produced candy. In the United States, then, Halloween has always reflected the commercial culture of capitalism. Apocryphal stories known as "urban legends" have circulated about poisoned treats and apples with razor blades hidden in them. While there has been no substantial verification of the stories, the belief is widespread. The result is that homemade treats and natural fruits are looked at suspiciouslyany communities offer Halloween treat X-raying services. Now so more than ever, the commer cially produced sweet is preferred (Ellis, 1994).
By the late twentieth century, as the generation that had enjoyed Halloween as children became adults, the holiday returned to being one in which different age groups engaged. College students hosted large costume parties. Cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco had major street festivals. As a day of public costuming and inversion, a time when people confronted images of the tabooepresentations of death, evil, and chaos, Halloween had long been used by the gay population as a "safe" time to parade in drag, to publicly display an identity that they must keep hidden the rest of the year. By the end of the twentieth century, the rest of the population joined them to create a kind of national Mardi Gras. Unlike the actual Fat Tuesday, however, this carnival is in the autumn, and it combines seasonal images of the harvest with images of human death (ghosts and skeletons) as well as other unspeakables. Halloween is a time when it is safe to play with our fears, to allow our demons to come out from under the bed and take center stage once a year.
See also British Isles, subentries on England and Ireland; Christianity; Day of the Dead; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Holidays; Shrove Tuesday.
Ellis, Bill. "'Safe' Spooks: New Hallowe'en Traditions in Response to Sadism Legends." In Hallowe'en and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Jack Jack Santino, pp. 244. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
Harris, K. M. "Extracts from the Committee's Collection." Ulster Folklife 4 (1958): 379.
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Santino, Jack, ed. Hallowe'en and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
Santino, Jack. The Hallowed Eve: Dimensions of Culture in a Calendar Festival in Northern Ireland. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Tuleja, Tad. "Trick or Treat: Pre-texts and Contexts." In Hallowe'en and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Jack Santino, pp. 8202. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.