Welcome to Folklife Today, a new blog produced by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Here at AFC, we have one of the largest archives in the world relating to traditional folk culture. The Center’s team of bloggers will be posting here regularly with interesting information about our collections and services.
We decided to launch this endeavor on Halloween because it’s one of America’s favorite holidays, and because the Library of Congress has great resources for delving into the history and folklore of this spooky celebration. Most of all, we’d like to highlight an article by Jack Santino, entitled “Halloween: The Folklore and Fantasy of All Hallows.” He delivered it as a lecture at the Library of Congress on October 29, 1982, and the American Folklife Center published it as a small brochure. In the early days of the internet, we put it in gopherspace, and it has been one of the most popular features on our website since we’ve HAD a website. We’re very glad to show it off whenever we can; it’s linked to its title above.
A few things have changed since Jack wrote this article. Jack himself has become one the country’s most prominent folklorists, and has served as president of the American Folklore Society. He has also edited a book on Halloween and similar festivals: Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. A particularly happy reminder that times and seasons change as Halloweens come and go is the fact that Jack’s daughter, Hannah Santino, just began an internship at AFC; she hadn’t yet been born when the Halloween article was published.
Scholarship has advanced a little, too, since 1982. It remains pretty certain, as Jack states in the article, that Halloween originated with the Celtic festival known as Samhain in Ireland, but it’s not as clear today that Samhain marked the beginning of the Celtic year. This conjecture only arose in the late nineteenth century, and became widely accepted in the twentieth. It’s based on Julius Caesar’s statement in Book Six of The Gallic Wars that the Gauls “keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night”; since Samhain began the dark half of the year, Caesar’s statement was interpreted to make Samhain the beginning of the year itself. But in truth, no-one knows exactly what Caesar meant, and other sources in Irish mythology suggest that the year began at the other great festival of Beltaine or Mayday. Meanwhile, the Gaulish artifact known as the Coligny Calendar, which was discovered in 1897 but not thoroughly described by archaeologists until recently, includes an event in the month of Samonios marked as the “Trinux Samo,” believed to be an abbreviation of the Gaulish “Trinuxtion Samonios,” or “Three-night observance of Samonios.” This holiday, believed by many to be the same as Samhain, falls in the middle rather than at the beginning of the first month, making it unlikely that it was the calendar’s “new year.” Regardless of the state of academic knowledge, however, popular depictions of ancient Celtic culture, including neo-pagan religions based on Celtic ideas, still include Samhain as the Celtic New Year.
The Coligny Calendar’s three-day holiday also deepens our appreciation of another facet of Halloween: in traditional Catholic culture, Halloween is itself part of a three-day festival, or triduum, known in English as the Triduum of All Hallows, or Hallowmas. Hallowmas includes Halloween, but also All Hallows/ All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). In different parts of the United States, different days of the triduum are emphasized. In Louisiana, where French Catholic culture was dominant, All Saints Day, or La Toussaint, is the day for visiting your ancestors in the cemetery and decorating their graves. Among Mexican Americans, it’s typically All Souls Day, or Día de los Muertos, that is most widely celebrated, and AFC has documentation of an important observance in California. Whichever of these festivals you prefer, All Hallows is a time for honoring the dead with sober reverence, as did the Reverend A.G. Holly, who sang “Let’s Go to Bury” for Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925.
Of course, Halloween is also a time for scaring ourselves with spooky stories. This is another tradition that goes back to the ancient Celts, who spun Halloween ghost stories such as “The Adventures of Nera,” in which the corpse of a hanged prisoner is reanimated, and enlists Nera’s aid in finding a drink. Jackie Torrence’s version of “The Golden Arm”, Evelia Andux’s Spanish version of a similar story and Jim Wills’s “Phantom Horses on Rock Creek” are three examples of more modern terrifying tales in AFC collections. Scary songs abound too, including Vera Hall’s “Awful Death”, George Vinton Graham’s “Sweet Mary Weep No More for Me”, and Warde Ford’s “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene”. There are even humorous songs involving the supernatural, including Asa Davis’s performance of “The Farmer’s Curst Wife.” (Bibliographic information on the Torrence and Davis performances can be found in AFC’s Illustrated Guide.)
Finally, no Halloween would be complete without reference to the custom of trick-or-treat. In this familiar evening ritual, children go door-to-door in costumes begging for food treats, sometimes also threatening a “trick” if they’re not given something tasty. Neighbors decorate their houses with spooky scenes to accommodate the visitors. Here are some trick-or-treaters documented in Nevada, and yard decorations from West Virginia, both from AFC’s rich collections. As Jack Santino points out, this is an ancient custom, but some people don’t like the threatening aspect of the ritual. In some towns we have documented, such as Anoka, Minnesota, which bills itself as “The Halloween Capital of the World,” large Halloween parties and parades have partially replaced trick-or-treating.
Want to know more? At the American Folklife Center, we have many similar traditions documented, and hundreds of spooky songs, stories, and photos in our archive. We’d love for you to come and explore them…if you dare!