Taking a break from the usual Verbal Ink topics of our place in the American corporate environment, we thought we'd put on the costume of a history blog and talk a little bit about where our favorite fall Holiday comes from.
Of course, we aren't talking about the one that involves a big meal and a lot of gratitude, but instead the one that focuses more on sweets and cheap scares – Halloween. All Hallow's Eve used to be marked more by its relation to the day after it – All Hallow's Day, or “Hallowmas,” or “Feast of all Saints.” What you might not know is that All Hallow's Eve is actually the first in a trilogy, known as “Allhallowtide” (among other things), and that the following two days used to be part of the same celebration. Much like the Matrix films, most of us have now forgotten about the 2nd and 3rd installments, but they are, predictably, “All Saint's Day” or “Hallow's Day,” and the lesser known “All Souls Day.”
Like a number of other contemporary American holidays, the entire triduum of days (which is a real word), has its roots mostly in the history of Western Christianity. To grossly oversimplify things, All Saints Day is the celebration of all Saints, known and unknown: primarily the living ones. All Soul's Day, on the other hand, is a sort of addendum to make sure not to forget the deceased saints. “Saint” in these celebrations isn't limited to those who have been canonized by the Catholic church as Saints, but as basically anyone who can be celebrated as being “good.” This tradition isn't too unlike what we've spread out to quite a few other holidays in the United States – Mother's Day, Father's Day, Veteran's Day, President's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day – you get the idea. It's a tradition we've carried on (in a weird way).
But the history begs the current question – why has mainstream culture kept only the the more frightening one? In an obvious comparison, Hallow's Eve has become the veneration of the un-saintly. We try to celebrate the things and people and ideas that scare us . Presumably, this used to be a warm-up for the proper honoring of the Saints, but as time progressed, most of us have dropped that follow-up altogether. So what's so worth celebrating about the anti-Saints?
To put it simply, they're a lot higher up on the fun factor (not to mention marketability). The patron saint of healthy eating is thrown out the window, replaced by the evils of sugary sweets. The celebration of the kind and patient is replaced by paying our utmost attention to the malicious and ill-tempered.
A few centuries ago, it could have been blasphemy to suggest having an annual celebration of spooky, scary skeletons (link below!), but if learned we've one thing over the last couple of hundred years, it's to lighten up a bit. Maybe part of what now makes Halloween more fun than frightening is that we're on this side of the Enlightenment – is that for a lot more of us, the ideas of ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, and things that go bump in the night now seem more like mythology than very real possibilities. But that makes it all the more admirable that we've preserved a celebration of these mythological threats. As Joseph Campbell said: “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.” So thank goodness that we as a society have at least come to interpret Myths as an opportunity to have fun together.
Happy Halloween! (now please take a moment to enjoy the fruits of well over a millennium of tradition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTgFtxHhCQ0)