Times Past

Halloween didn't start so scary

Special to The TribuneOctober 28, 2012 

Bobbing for apples had its roots in the rituals honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess, here with her symbol, the apple, as painted by Nicolas Fouché, c. 1700.


‘I like to blame it all on those Celts with their Druidic rites that you fellows teach about.”

In October 1975, I went to the faculty club at the UCSB campus to meet with a well-known historian of medieval England. Vernon Cheadle, the chancellor of UCSB, came to our table. It was just before Halloween and my colleague in British studies asked Dr. Cheadle if he was prepared for the forthcoming student celebration of Halloween in Isla Vista. He learned the chancellor’s rejoinder contained a great deal of truth.

The Celts who lived in the British Isles and northwestern France more than 2,000 years ago were farmers. The agricultural calendar regulated their lives. The time of the autumnal harvest marked the end of their year and the beginning of a new year. The feast of Samhain, pronounced sow-en, was a time of great celebration.

It was also a time of death and killing. The crops of wheat and barley were harvested and the fields were often burnt to increase the yield of the next year’s planting. The weaker animals that were unlikely to survive the coming winter were slaughtered. The meat that couldn’t be preserved was consumed along with prodigious quantities of alcoholic beverages.

The Druidic priests and others would don the heads and skins of animals and mimic the behavior of deer, wolves, bear and cattle.

The ghosts of the dead were though to come back at this time. Bonfires were kept lit at night to ward them off. Fairies, both good and bad, were said to travel door to door, seeking sustenance. Gifts of food would be left at each doorstep to appease them.

The Roman conquerors added their own late autumnal festival of Feralia to the mix. It was for honoring Manes, the spirits of the dead. The feast of Pomona, the Roman goddess of trees and fruit, was celebrated Nov. 1. Pomona’s symbol was the apple. Bobbing for apples had its origins in the rituals for Pomona.

The Christian missionaries who came both from Ireland and Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries tried at first to stamp out these pagan practices. “All Saints Day” was changed to May 13 by Pope Boniface IV in an effort to separate it from the pagan feast. But Samhain at the end of October continued to be the popular day of celebration among the people. Ultimately, in 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV returned the celebration to Nov. 1. Medieval English used the word “Hollow” for “holy.”

“All Hallows Eve” on the last day of October became known as “Halloween.”

There was still a popular concern for celebrating the lives of the dead who were not saints or martyrs. In the year 1000, the church declared Nov. 2 the day for honoring “All Souls.”

Both the church and the civil government allowed the poor to go door to door begging for food. In return they would pray for the souls of the dearly departed members of the household. Special loaves of bread called “soul cakes” would be handed out to them in return.

As society became less religious in Western Europe and America, bands of children would go door to door, offering to perform in return for a “treat.” Without the offer a treat, a “trick” might follow. In rural America, farmers often secured their outhouses to the ground with ropes and stakes and carriages were firmly locked in the barn or stable.

I mentioned this to Dr. Cheadle, who replied, “Ah, those were the good, simple days!”

• • •

My annual Halloween tour of the Old Mission Cemetery will be Wednesday at 4 p.m. beginning at the Bridge Street entrance near the intersection of Beebe and Bridge in back of the Pacific Coast Center.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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