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Welcome to Folklife Today, and…Happy Halloween!

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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.

Jak Santino Halloween Brochure Cover
Cover of the Jack Santino Brochure, American Folklife Center, 1982. The cover image is from an engraving by Francisco Goya (1746-1828).

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!

Comments (13)

  1. Congratulations on your new Folklife Today blog! Judging from the first post, it should make a great addition to the Library of Congress blog list. I look forward to finding many resources here for the classroom.

    • Thanks for reading it! We appreciate the feedback, and we’ll do our best to continue posting interesting and useful materials.

  2. Perfect post for today! I look forward to more information about our holidays and customs that I can share with my history students. Well done!

  3. This is a solid, engaging posting and great-looking blog. Two dozen links! What you wrote is rich, and what you connect to beyond the blog’s post is fun and informative — my favorite combo. Thanks for doing it, for doing it so well, and for sharing it beyond the library.

  4. Thanks so much for this story. I showed it right away to my kids and it expanded their worldview (maybe a bit more than they wanted). And I appreciate the correct pronunciation of Samhain, which I’ve mangled as “Sam Hane.”

    Congratulations on the launch. It’s about damn time, too. AFC has some of the most precious cultural content in the world and some of the finest scholars curating it, so there are many wonderful blog posts to look forward to.

    • Thanks to Mike, Mi and Kelleen…I really appreciate the feedback!

  5. Congrats on the launch and on the well written article, besides being entertained, I may have inadvertantly learned a few things as well.

  6. Congratulations on this launch, Steve!

    When I read the translation of Julius Caesar’s comment, I thought he just meant the Gauls measured a day from sundown to sundown, like in Jewish ritual and in a lot of other cultures as well.

    Are you all set for All Saints Day (November 1st)? We’ve got great photos and fieldnotes for All Saints Day in Lacombe, LA. – Alan & Karen

  7. This is great! So much fun and inspiring information here. I can’t wait to read more! I was especially interested to read about the newer research into the Celtic year, and whether or not it began with Samhain. I have no guess, but it seems possible from the Caesar quote (which is new to me) that he was saying that the Gauls did in fact keep their calendars carefully (that is, they insist that the day follow the night (and the night the day)) or that they began their celebrations, as with Jewish celebrations, on the eve of the holy day. I am curious also (different subject) to learn/explore more about the history of Mischief night (having grown up with this in New Jersey, but discovering later it isn’t practiced everywhere and where it is it is sometimes the night before (as in NJ), sometimes the night of, and sometimes the night after. Also, I have noticed in talking to people that there is some confusion (?) about whether all soul’s day is 11/1 or 11/2. I think (not sure) that I grew up (raised Episcopalian) with thinking it was the second, but then later believed I had been mistaken and it was actually the first, with the second being All Souls’ Day (which suits me fine, as the second is also my birthday, and all soul’s day is more fun than all saint’s day). I had not known that the custom of visiting the cemeteries is in some cultures done on All Saints’ Day before reading this article; interesting! One last thing (for now): I am inspired now to explore what the Library of Congress has in its collections about celebrations around the world and throughout time of dreams and fools. Thinking of April Fools Day for one and the Huron festival of dreams, which name I’m forgetting, but which the Jesuits encountered (and were frightened and puzzled by) in the 1600s. (I know they also had a festival of the dead, but I think it took place only every five or ten years (?), where they gathered up all the bones and corpses (some recently dead, some years dead) from local graves and each family carried their loved ones a distance all in a big parade to a common burial ground, like a big pit, where the remains were tossed, and there was some kind of game of tussling over special mementos of the deceased (such as a fur coat?) at the pit side that also horrified the Jesuits. Thank you for all your cool scholarship!

    • To both Heather and Alan & Karen: Thanks for your comments! Caesar definitely seems to have meant that an annual observance occurs so that the night being celebrated precedes the day–so a birthday or holiday would begin at sundown, as with Jewish observances. Whether this meant that the reckoning of ordinary dates worked this way as well is unclear, but it would be strange if not: the year would then begin in what was technically the middle of a calendar day, not the beginning. Finally, whether this also meant that the “dark half” of the year preceded the “light half,” which is the logical leap made to assert that Samhain is the New Year, is debatable. There is other evidence for Samhain as the New Year, or at least one of two equally important yearly dates (the other being Beltane): many rituals in both mythological and historical literature are set at each of these times. But there are several mythological and poetic passages in which the year is explained or described, in which Beltane is mentioned before Samhain, making the actual identity of the “New Year” a difficult question.

  8. Great article highlighting the diverse collection at LOC! I love all the hyperlinks to songs, photos, stories. Makes the article and the collection come to life!

  9. I appreciated the essay on one of my favorite holidays! I look forward to more postings.

  10. Superb! I am reminded that for several Halloween eves after the Santino lecture, I would great trick-or-treaters at my home in Takoma Park by saying “Here’s all you ever wanted to know about Halloween, complete with bibliography!” I would then drop a copy of the Santino brochure into their bag of goodies. The kiddies generally looked somewhat disappointed (to say the least), but their parents applauded from the sidewalk!

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