“How many times the Church has decanted the new wine of Christianity into the old bottles of heathendom”, writes Ruth Edna Kelley at the outset of The Book of Hallowe’en (1919), considered the first book-length history of this celebration. She is quoting, almost verbatim, James George Frazer’s vast work of comparative religion, The Golden Bough, which, in turn, reworks Jesus’ parable from Mark 2:22: “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred”. But Christ could not anticipate the craftiness of his followers. The triduum of Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day were brewed within recycled pagan casks — the Celtic festival of Samhain, Egyptian solar superstitions, devotions to Pomona, the Roman goddess of plenty — and overlaid onto older spiritual calendars that marked when the dead were unusually close to the quick, when “the gods whom Christ dethroned joined the ill-omened throng”.
The Book of Hallowe’en begins its history with Celtic druids, first referenced by the historian Herodotus in the fifth century BC, who “worshipped spirits of forest and stream, and feared the powers of evil”. The druids believed that on October 31st, the last night of the old year, “the lord of death gathered together all the souls of those who had died in the passing year and had been condemned to live in the bodies of animals, to decree what forms they should inhabit for the next twelve months.” According to Kelley, the familiar imagery that adorns the plastic shlock and costumes of Big Halloween today — a market estimated by statisticians to see $12.2 billion of consumer spending in the United States this year — is sourced from these older rites. The druids, we are told, held black cats sacred, sacrificed enemies in wicker frames set ablaze, and carried magical glass balls crafted from the spittle of snakes. As Christianity spread across Britain, the sacred oak groves of the druids were felled to build churches, and their festivals hollowed out to serve as vessels for monotheistic rites. Saint John’s Eve was mixed with the dregs of Midsummer; Lammas filled the sterilized bottle of Lughnasadh, a Gaelic harvest festival progressively shorn of pagan reference. Like her contemporaries across the Atlantic involved with the Irish Literary Revival or the Scottish Renaissance, Kelley believes that the old magic was buried but not lost: it simply went underground, finding safe passage into modernity in rustic landscapes inhabited by “Scotch, Irish, and Welsh peasantry”, who still believe that “brooks, hills, dales, and rocks abound in tiny supernatural beings”.
Modern Halloween — the costume-clad, decoration-heavy, trick-or-treating variety — is younger than it might seem. In her 2012 history of the celebration, Lisa Morton argues that American Halloween was a product of the mass immigration from the British Isles following the Irish potato famines and Scottish economic depressions in the nineteenth century. Shortly after Queen Victoria participated in a widely publicized 1869 Halloween party at Balmoral Castle, reports of children’s Halloween festivities in the United States began to appear in newspapers and magazines, as newly arrived immigrants sought to keep up with their homeland. Sticking to her comparative mythological method, Ruth Edna Kelley notes the same phenomenon but casts it in the light of authentic reenactment.
While the original customs of Hallowe’en are being forgotten more and more across the ocean, Americans have fostered them, and are making this an occasion something like what it must have been in its best days overseas. All Hallowe’en customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries.
It’s a phenomenal vision — the American melting pot metaphor taken to such extremes that novelty and originality become unimaginable. America is literally haunted here: not by ghosts and demons, but by the inescapable traditions stowed away in cultural baggage smuggled over from the Old World.
Accordingly, The Book of Hallowe’en is most alive when recounting the customs, rituals, celebrations, games, and other forms of merrymaking carried out in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. There are respects paid to the dead and acts of divination. Bretons, says Kelley, stay up late, until “mysterious noises begin to be heard about the house”, and then honor the deceased with tales and memories. The actions of cats can be read like tea leaves on Halloween — a jump in the lap is double good luck; if a kitten yawns your way, you are not alert to the opportunities offered by life. Salt before bed induces prophetic dreams, and other forgotten uses of food abound. We learn about “lambswool”, a drink made from milk and roasted apples, and the extant Irish tradition of hiding a ring in colcannon, a cabbage mash. Similar to the fève baked into French galletes des rois, finding the ring heralds luck for the married, or imminent marriage for the young and single. Other traditions repurpose food, namely root and cruciferous veg. In Ireland, cabbage stalks were named for everyone present at a party, “then pulled up, and the guests were asked to come out, and ‘see their sowls.’” In Scotland, children made terrifying jack-o’-lantern turnips and piled cabbage stalks around doors and windows, baiting fairies to bring them new siblings. There is a surprising amount of snack-fueled matchmaking. Boys walking with oats in their mouths would hear the name of their future wives on the wind. Girls with nine slices of apple, who look into moonlit mirrors, may see the image of a lover, asking for the final bite. And Welsh women who stick “a knife among leeks”, while walking backward out of the garden, will return to find the knife plunged into the earth by a future beau.
Published when Kelley was just twenty-six years old, five years after she graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe College, The Book of Hallowe’en was composed between shifts at Lynn Public Library in Massachusetts, where she would work for much of her life. Kelley ends her book with a vision. “May there not be written and presented in America a truly Hallowe’en pageant, illustrating and befitting its noble origin, and making its place secure among the holidays of the year?” Halloween is certainly secure in the United States and many other countries today, but do our contemporary celebrations befit the day’s noble origins? Few would be able to answer this question better than Kelley. And on the evening of October 31st, when your floorboards begin to creak beneath the weight of unseen forces, perhaps she will share her thoughts.
Oct 24, 2023