Halloween is upon us!
Now, you could do what everyone else is doing and go the zombie, vampire, scary movies, and candy route, or you could add a little medieval-European flavour to your celebration.
First, a brief-ish history lesson.
It is commonly said that Halloween has its roots in Celtic tradition. But, saying this is a bit hinky. One, there was no monolithic Celtic culture. Two, what we do know is almost solely through a Roman lens. Basically, there isn’t really contemporary documentation to support any of the claims. It’s more a case of guesswork.
That being said, it does seem that the changing from summer into fall was at least noted by the Western European cultures that the Romans encountered. But, we’re going to jump ahead to our timeline and dig in with what we DO know. By the time the Romans opt to give up the ghost (as it were) on continuing to hold their Westward empire, marking the beginning of fall in much of Europe was a Roman affair laid over Celtic, Gaulish, Germanic, and British traditions. Like they do.
The Romans had a festival, Feralia, held in late October during which the dead were remembered. They also had a holiday on November 1st to celebrate the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Her symbol is the apple, not coincidentally.
Bede, writing in the 8th century, refers to October as “winter moon” (Ƿinterfylleþ) and to November as the “blood month”, the latter perhaps relating to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of herd culling ahead of winter. By Bede’s time Europe is fairly well Christianised, but pastoral ways were still prevalent. Whatever blend of pre-Roman celebrations rolled into the Roman celebrations remained was not a big enough deal for historians to be recording at this time.
Later medieval historians make reference to bonfires and celebrations like Samhain and Calan Gaeaf. But, these celebrations do not necessarily match up to the romanticised visions we have constructed since the Victorian era (when the jack-o-lantern first gets a mention…in fact, most modern American Halloween aesthetic was birthed in the Victorian age).
But back to the Middle Ages. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved a holiday established by his predecessor, Pope Boniface IV, from May 13th to November 1st. That holiday celebrated saints and martyrs and was called All Saints’ Day. The following day, meant for EVERYONE’S souls, was known as All Souls’ Day.
The English gave the holiday the name All Hallows. The night before, then, was All Hallows Eve which became the word Halloween. So, Halloween is Oct 31st, All Saints’ or All Hallows is November 1st, and All Souls Day is November 2nd (when the release of souls from purgatory to heaven is celebrated).
On All Saints’ Day people dressed up as angels, devils, and saints and paraded through towns and large bonfires were erected. Professional actors known as mummers would dress up in elaborate costumes and put on plays, typically of mortality sort (because everyone needs beast-headed creatures telling them how to be better humans.).
On All Souls’ Day, inspired by the Roman tradition of Lemuria (the sending away of the dead), people prayed to help guide the soul’s of their recently departed to heaven. This was sometimes accompanied by food.
These are still celebrated across Europe in various ways, whether La Toussaint, or Día de Todos los Santos, or Halloween, or Halottak Napja. Soul cakes, allerseelenbreze, and other related breads find their history in the Middle Ages. Wheat seems to play a big role, probably because of recent harvests. Across Europe celebrations on November 1st and 2nd incorporate visits to cemeteries, flowers (chrysanthemums are big, for example), offerings, and feasts featuring fruits and nuts. All these elements likely have their roots in the Middle Ages or further back.
Throw your own modern Allhallowsmas!
So, back to the beginning of the blog. If you want to snag some throwback flavour and host something different and culturally rich this Halloween, take a page from medieval European history. Celebrate from the evening of October 31st through the evening of November 2nd. Dress up like angels, saints, and devils or go more Roman and chose nature related guises like dryads or Pomona. Or be inspired by the mummers. Make a trip to the cemetery to commemorate your lost loved ones or to generally respect the dead. Bring chrysanthemums and light candles and dedicate them to the dead. Host a feast featuring meat, fruit (especially apples and pomegranates), nuts, and seasonal bread like soul cakes. Make it about remembering those who are no longer with us. Bring in some modern flare with songs like “Health to the Company”, “The Parting Glass”, and “A’Soalin’”.