Why do we celebrate Halloween

Here’s another post from Blue Badge Guide Ian Braisby, who is one half of the successful Birmingham Ghost Walks.

For most people, Halloween is a night when people (especially children) dress up as witches, ghosts or some other supernatural creature, attend parties and go “trick or treating”.  But where does this strange tradition and celebration come from?

Like most festivals we celebrate today its origins, timing and traditions are a mixture of influences from down the Centuries – Christian, pagan and modern.

There is no doubt that “Halloween” itself is a relatively modern invention, and has not been around for much more than a hundred years.  But the timing of Halloween has links to numerous other festivals.  Many ancient festivals occurred at this time of year, including the Roman harvest (Pomona) and the day for honouring ancestors (Parentalia), as well as the Celtic Samhain marking the transition between light and dark seasons.  In the Pagan belief system, this change of seasons was thought to be a time when the physical world and the spirit world were close together and could actually come into contact, which gave people a chance to contact the spirits of their forebears but also meant they needed to light fires and create charms to ward off malevolent spirits.  When Christianity became the dominant religion of Western Europe, a great effort was made to replace pagan festivals with Christian observances.  Christmas, Easter and many other religious holidays were deliberately set at the same times of year as existing celebrations to ease the transition and increase acceptance of the new religion.  In late Autumn, what we now call Halloween, the days involved with honouring ancestors were subsumed into the new festivals of All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd.  The former was a day celebrating the lives of saints who did not have their own dedicated feast day, while the latter was a day of prayer for all departed Christians.  A later English name for All Saints’ Day was All Hallows Day, which meant that 31st October, when the commemorations actually began, was All Hallows Eve (or E’en), which is where we get the modern word Halloween.  Until the later Middle Ages, many Christians believed (and were taught by the clergy) that the souls of the departed would wander the earth until the prayers of the faithful sent them to heaven, and could harm anyone who had been at odds with them during their lives.  So whether we look at it from a Christian or a pagan perspective, Halloween began as a time when people’s thoughts would turn to remembering the dead, and the desire to celebrate respected ancestors, while defending homes and lives against more harmful influences.

These origins are very much reflected in many of the modern-day Halloween activities too.  Let’s start with the costumes.  Both the pagan and Christian traditions involved elements of people donning costumes, and this was done for various reasons.  On a community level, the Celtic festivals involved people dressing up as hideous creatures to either represent or discourage the spirits that were around at that time of year, while in Christian churches, it was common to perform plays about the lives of saints to a largely illiterate congregation.  What both Christian and pagan traditions shared was that people would also want to disguise themselves on the day they were most vulnerable to wandering spirits, to confuse any that might wish them harm.  Over time, costumes evolved to become anything that people see as frightening or potentially harmful, such as witches, the devil, vampires or monsters from more modern literature and film.

If Halloween has a universal symbol, it is surely the pumpkin.  The use of something that came originally from North America reflects the fact that the modern form of Halloween largely came from the USA too.  The All Hallows festival was very popular among Christian communities in the early days of colonisation and, when merged with Celtic traditions that persisted among the many later Irish and Scottish immigrants, helped to shape the modern-day festivities.  But while pumpkins themelves originate in the Americas, carving out vegetables to have hideous faces and hold candles has been around since pagan times.  In fact, the traditional lights carried by costumed people involved in early Halloween rituals to help ward off evil spirits were exactly that, usually turnips in fact.  These lights became known in England as “jack o’lanterns”.  When America was settled, people simply substituted a locally grown vegetable, and the Halloween pumpkin as we know it today was born!  Around 99% of all pumpkins grown are used for carving into lanterns rather than for eating.

Trick or treating is probably the other most famous Halloween tradition.  It usually involves children in costume knocking on doors in their neighbourhood asking people “Trick or treat” – the idea originally being that if you did not give them a small gift, they would play some kind of trick on the householder instead.  These days, the choice element seems to have been pretty much eliminated and the expectation is that people will give treats, usually in the form of sweets.  Like other aspects of modern Halloween, trick or treat has a definite basis in the history of Christian and pagan festivals.  Firstly, we have the tradition of leaving an offering of food and drink for the spirits of our ancestors who are “visiting” at this time of year.  This is an important part of the Mexican Day of The Dead festival, which has close ties to Halloween, and to French Christian traditions involving taking food to the graves of relatives on All Hallows’ Eve.  In centuries gone by, people would also leave small food offerings outside their houses to pacify any less benevolent spirits and prevent them coming inside.  Trick or treating also appears to be linked to an old Christian tradition associated with this festival called “souling”.  This involved people (especially children) from poorer families going to the houses of wealthier members of the community asking for food, especially cakes (which became known as soul cakes), in return for them praying for the souls of the person’s family.  However, the practice also has strong connections to a later tradition, especially common in Northern England, called Mischief Night.  Although this usually happened on 4th November, it was all about children dressing up in costumes, especially witches and monsters, and playing tricks on their neighbours, which could sometimes be averted by giving them coins, cakes or the like.  It appears that at some stage, this might have become part of the slightly earlier All Hallows festival and mingled with the other traditions to create trick or treating in its modern form.

There are various other Halloween traditions that can also be traced back to the Roman harvest of Pomona (the goddess whose name gives us the French word for apple – “pomme”), such as apple bobbing (attempting to grab apples floating in a tub of water using only the teeth), or the belief that if a young woman put an apple under her pillow on this night, she would dream of her future husband.

It is clear that almost every aspect of Halloween as we know it today has its roots in a variety of festivals, practices and beliefs from many centuries ago – Celtic, Roman and Christian influences are very much in evidence in the modern festival.  These days, it’s essentially a fun night especially for children, a chance to dress in outlandish costumes, play games and enjoy treats.  But whatever you are doing this Halloween – taking the kids trick or treating in your neighbourhood, hosting a party, dressing up as a Disney witch, or telling ghost stories to try and scare your friends and family – it’s worth remembering that the original festivals, pagan and Christian, shared one important feature: at heart they were about remembering people whose lives shaped our world and ourselves, and protecting our families and communities from harm.  Happy Halloween!

Who was Good King Wenceslaus?

This is another guest post from my fabulous husband, Ian. Ian is a German to English translator and a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Good King Wenceslaus – The Story Behind the Carol.

We all know the popular Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”.  It’s a lively, jaunty tune with words that, although not about the biblical Christmas story, are about the spirit of generosity and friendship that the season is supposed to be all about.

But did you know there is a real story behind the song?  Or that Good King Wenceslas was a real person?

The real “Good King Wenceslas” is generally thought to have been Wenceslaus I (or Vaclav I in Czech), Duke of Bohemia, and reigned from 921 to 935 AD.  He was called a king in the legend (and the modern carol) because the Holy Roman Emperor gave him a royal title after his death in recognition of his good works.

As the title of the song suggests, he was certainly known as a good ruler, and a good man.  From early in his life, he was known as a humble, intelligent and educated young man and also as a devout Christian.  Despite ruling at a very turbulent time in Central European history, with numerous wars and alliances between the many fragmented states in the region, Wenceslaus acquired a reputation as a peaceful and benevolent ruler.  He was keen to establish Christianity in his lands, and built a new church dedicated to St Vitus in his capital, Prague.  This church became St Vitus Cathedral, which remains one of the biggest visitor attractions in the Czech Capital’s castle district to this day, and houses the remains of Wenceslaus at the good king’s shrine.

Despite his reputation, Wenceslaus alienated other members of the Bohemian ruling classes through his political alliances, including members of his own family.  A plot was hatched to remove him from power, with his brother Boleslav and other nobles at the centre of it, and in 935 AD Wenceslaus was murdered on his way to church.  Boleslav then succeeded him as Duke of Bohemia.

After his death, Wenceslaus soon started to become venerated as a saint and martyr.  Several biographies of him were produced, all of them emphasising his benevolent nature and his murder by a power-hungry court faction led by his own brother.  Stories of his good works were exaggerated to become legends.  And that is where the story immortalised in the carol comes in.

Later Christian chroniclers wrote of how Wenceslaus would rise every night from his bed and, accompanied by only one of his retainers, would walk barefoot – regardless of weather conditions, and I know from experience it can be brutally cold in Prague in the autumn and winter – to local churches, where he would give money, food, clothing and other kinds of assistance to widows, the poor, prisoners and others of his subjects in need.  These legends were the basis for him becoming a saint.  The cult of Wenceslaus was, naturally, especially prevalent in his native Bohemia, but he was also a popular saint in England.

The modern carol was written by John Mason Neale in 1853.  His lyrics are said to be based on a Czech poem about the good deeds of Wenceslaus.  The familiar tune is based on a medieval spring hymn, which had totally different words.  The reference to the “feast of Stephen” (St Stephen’s Day, 26th December) has no real link to the life or legend of Wenceslaus, with the saint’s day falling on September 28th, although of course there are parallels between the Duke’s charitable actions and the generosity associated with Christmas.  My suspicion is that the author used that reference to make his song one that could be sung at Christmas time!  Neale’s work has been heavily criticised for its sentimentality and Victorian moralising, but the carol remains hugely popular to this day.

Giving alms to poor people is just one of the legends associated with Wenceslaus in the Czech Republic, where his former Dukedom of Bohemia is now located.  In actual fact he is a kind of King Arthur figure for the Czech people, a medieval monarch with mythical status.  Legend maintains that an army of knights lies sleeping under a mountain in the country and, when the Czech people are in greatest need, they will rise up led by Wenceslaus and ride to save the nation.

Whether or not Wenceslaus was as generous and selfless as the legends and the carol suggest, there is no doubt that he is a key figure in Czech history.  If you ever go to Prague, you can find plenty of evidence of him.  A statue of him on horseback stands on the square that bears his name, one of the main squares in the centre of the modern Czech capital.  His armour and helmet are on display in Prague Castle, and his shrine can be visited in St Vitus Cathedral.  Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has its national public holiday on St Wenceslaus Day, September 28th.

So next time you are at a carol service and hear the famous melody, and join in with John Mason Neale’s words, remember that the man you’re singing about was a real person whose life and works have been celebrated for over a thousand years.

Related posts:  Who was St Nicholas?  Who was Babushka?  Who was La Befana?

What are the origins of Valentine’s Day?

heartToday is Valentine’s Day so I thought it was a good opportunity to explore the origins of this day.

Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 14th February?

There have been several St Valentine’s throughout history, but the most likely one to be commemorated was a Roman priest who is purported to have conducted secret marriage ceremonies for soldiers. At the time soldiers were forbidden to marry because it was believed domestic bliss would reduce their efficiency as soldiers.

When he was found out, he was imprisoned.  The story goes that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and on the eve of his death wrote her a letter signed “from your Valentine”.

However, Valentine’s Day wasn’t associated with romance until Chaucer’s time when he wrote about it being the day that birds chose their mates. February is early though for birds to begin mating, so why is February 14th the date chosen for Valentine’s Day?

One possibility is that it is the anniversary of St Valentine’s death. The other is that the date was chosen to coincide with a festival that was already taking place. The festival of Lupercalia was a pagan fertility festival that took place between 13th-15th February to celebrate the coming of spring. As many Christian and pagan festivals were amalgamated by the Romans, this is a likely explanation.

The Day of the Dead

skullThis festival is celebrated in Mexico on the 1st and 2nd November. It is a day when families gather together to remember their loved ones who have died.

Despite being celebrated so close to Halloween, there is nothing ghoulish about the Day of the Dead (or el Día de Muertos as it’s known in Spanish), nor is it a sombre occasion. Families don’t get together to mourn their dead, but rather to celebrate their life. They make altars for their loved ones, or visit their graves and decorate the gravestones, often even having a picnic at the graveside.

It is said that the spirits of the dead come back to earth for one day, first babies and children who have died and later the adults. The festival coincides with All Saints’ Day (1st November) and All Souls’ Day (2nd November), but like many dates in the Christian calendar, the festival has its roots much further back in time than the arrival of Christianity in Mexico, dating back to the Aztecs.

It was a festival to honour the Goddess of Death, Mictecacihuatl, and originally lasted for the whole of the 9th month of the Aztec calendar (from around mid July to mid August). The Spanish conquistadores tried to eradicate the festival, but the Aztecs clung tightly to their beliefs.

Eventually the festival was reduced to just two days and was moved to coincide with appropriate dates in the Christian calendar. However the celebrations still have a nod towards the original Aztec celebrations, and Mictecacihuatl, in the guise of a well-dressed skeleton, still plays an important role.

Here are some links to videos to explain to children what the Day of the Dead is all about: Day of the Dead 1st video , Day of the Dead 2nd video, Oaxaca: The Day of the Dead

I also found this post about Day of the Dead in Poland.