Transformation of Halloween stretches across centuries, continents

Witches on broomsticks were a late arrival to Halloween lore.

Witches on broomsticks were a late arrival to Halloween lore.

No “eye of newt and toe of frog” for Anita Guerrini’s gurgling caldron this Halloween. With an apology to witch 2 in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, try pagans, Irish Catholic immigrants, and the chance to visit with your deceased relatives instead.

Guerrini, the Horning endowed chair in history, shared her recipe for Friday’s festive and frightful holiday Thursday at the TRIAD Club’s luncheon.

Despite the “spooky stuff” and associations with witchcraft that have become a large part of Halloween in the past half-century, the late-autumn holiday originated “as a way to remember and honor the dead,” said Guerrini,  the newly arrived professor of science and medicine history .

In pagan Ireland centuries ago, as the abrupt transition to winter descended upon communities, people extinguished their home fires and came to the sacred flames kept by their Druid priests. In that northern latitude, with the darkness, cold and dampness of the season intensifying as October drew to a close, the priests relit the bonfires as a ritual passing from the season of life and light to a time of darkness when nothing grew.

In those near-lifeless setting, families and their Druid priests believed the spirits of the dead could pass through the thin veil that divides life and death, giving the survivors the opportunity to see and honor them again.

“You have to remember,” Guerrini said, “death happened frequently in communities in those times.” It would not have been uncommon for several members of a family to have died during any one year, she said.

In those years before the 8th century, the family custom was to leave food on the hearth for the spirits who returned while the family slept. “They were not afraid to acknowledge them,” Guerrini said.

Anita Guerrini, the Horning endowed chair holder in History, will unearth the history of Halloween at the TRIAD Faculty Club meeting Thursday. (photo: Ed Curtin)

Anita Guerrini, the holder of the Horning endowed chair in History, has unearthed a brief history of Halloween for the TRIAD Faculty Club. (photo: Ed Curtin)

After Christianity secured its footing in Ireland in the 700s, some 300 years after St. Patrick, the Church created All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2. Saints were referred to as hallowed, hence the evening before became All Hallows Eve and later Halloween.

The Druid festival and Christian holy days kept low profiles until the 19th century when Irish Catholic immigrants arrived in the United States, Guerrini said. Until then, Protestants, especially Calvinists and Puritans who set the tone for life in the colonies, eschewed celebrations, tended to distained the idea of miracles such as the return of the dead, and did not recognize saints. Halloween remained a parochial event, she said.

Even witchcraft, debatably the surviving remnants of an ancient religion, had little to do with Halloween, Guerrini said. And the persecution of witched through the 17th century was more of a community responding to those seen as outsiders.

Since the mid-1800s, Halloween has been associated with jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, trick-or-treating, adult costume parties before World War II, haunted houses, and, of course, candy, Guerrini said.

~ by Ed Curtin

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