Last night we all went out to meet up with some friends and see the local New Orleans Halloween parade, “Krewe of Boo“. The parade was great and the weather was perfect! Throws included Krewe cups, magnets, bags of chips and pralines. There was a great headless horseman walking along handing out candy to children along the route and some of our favorite dancing troupes, including the Muffa-lottas and the 610 Stompers (Ordinary men, extraordinary moves!)
On the way home I bought some candy for tonight’s trick-or-treaters, although I’m not sure I will get many. Trick-or-treating seems to be on the decline in recent years. Some people seem to fear it will vanish forever – but this lull is part of a larger cycle in which the practice recedes and returns, transformed.
The origins of trick-or-treating are lost in prehistory, as is the origin of Halloween itself. However, there is a great deal of information that has been unearthed about it (in some cases, literally). The customs we follow in America today are relics from various peoples who lived in the northern part of Europe. Halloween signaled the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the colder months. Now it was time to conserve energy and stay warm and fed to survive the winter.
It also seems to be commonly believed that the mysterious other world was easily reached on this day – that one could communicate more clearly with the dead, and that fairies, goblins, and all manner of inhuman creature could come out to create mischief. People burnt giant wicker men for reasons that are not quite clear. At one time, it seems, they burned actual people.
These widely held beliefs led to some commonly held practices. Lighting bonfires is still common, both for practical reasons (lighting and warmth) as well as superstitious reasons (to keep away frightening things). Masking is an acknowledgement of the belief that the fairies and the dead are among us tonight. Scarecrows are a creepy reminder of barbaric ancient practices.
Going door to door itself comes from the larger tradition of “wassailing” – in which groups of people would drink to the health of their trees, their animals, and their crops around the time of the New Year. Wassailing became most strongly a Christmas caroling tradition that lasted through Twelfth Night, but a part of it exists as the Halloween trick-or-treat tradition as well. In the times when feudal lords reigned, underlings would go to the castle lords with their wassailing bowls and sing – the expectation was that they would be provided with wine, perhaps cake. It was a community event, and something to do to brighten up the winter months.
Sometimes things got out of hand. In later urban times, moral panics would sometimes arise about the lawlessness of wassailers; their vandalism and drunkenness. There is a certain inevitability that groups of adolescent boys will misbehave while running around unsupervised at night on a holiday – especially if they are drinking. Outraged citizens mobilized to ban wassailing, just as in the modern age there are calls to curb the behavior of older boys who take trick-or-treating too far.
November 5th – now known as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night in England – is really just another modern extension of the old Halloween celebrations. November 5 was in some regions the day on which Halloween traditions were followed. Bonfires and burning an effigy have little to do with the actual history of a terrorist several hundred years dead. One could almost feel he was an excuse to keep the old traditions going.
In America – while it was still a British colony – raucous celebrations were held in Boston on November 5th, which included putting giant effigies dressed like a Pope and the devil in carts at the North and South end of Boston, pulling them toward the center of town and having a sort of drunken mock battle with each other on the Boston Commons. This ended with the effigies being burnt. Similarly to concerns about “rowdy” wassailers, various Puritan leaders sought to stop “Pope’s Day” celebrations – however, they were unsuccessful in this until after the American Revolution.
It does seem we need a communal holiday about this time of year; for it returns despite the many attempts to ban it. If trick-or-treating as it exists now goes away, something else will take its place. What are you doing for Halloween this year?