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Beginning in Kindergarten, we exchange cards with classmates and friends on Valentine’s Day. Later, we give flowers and presents to loved ones. Here’s why we do it.
This “lover’s holiday” is an anomaly. It was actually an effort by the Catholic Church to keep teenagers from becoming lovers.
Before Christ was born, it was a Roman tradition for teenage girls and boys to gather ever February in the name of Lupercus, god of the flocks, to celebrate fertility and randomly choose a “mate” for the year. They were permitted to do anything they liked together (and what else would teenagers do?)
When Christians gained power in the Roman Empire, they wanted to bring this practice to an end. So they selected a substitute for Lupercus (to be the focus of a parallel holiday) – St. Valentine, a bishop who had reputedly been tortured and executed by Emperor Claudius II in 270 AD for performing marriages after Claudius outlawed them. This symbol of more “wholesome” love was reluctantly accepted by the Romans. But just to be sure no one gave in to temptation, the Catholic Church made it a mortal sin to worship Lupercus. Eventually, Valentine’s Day became a recognized holiday throughout Western Europe.
If teens couldn’t get together in February, what could they do? They could send each other respectful notes of affection. And they did, although it seems like a poor substitute. At any rate, sending lovers’ greetings became a part of the Valentine’s Day ritual, and when Christian influence grew, the practice of sending notes on February 14 spread with it.
The first greeting cards didn’t appear until the 18th century. Printed cards were common in Germany by the 1780s; they were called Freundschaftkarten, or “friendship cards.” The first American cards were manufactured in the 1870s, at an amazing cost of up to $35 apiece.
The name Halloween is Scottish and had its origins in the Catholic church. It comes from a contracted corruption of All Hallow’s Eve, the night before “All Hallow’s Day” (or “All Saints Day”). The day was originally introduced in the seventh century BC to commemorate all those saints and martyrs who had no special day for themselves and was held on May 13. The day was changed by Pope Boniface IV to replace a Roman Pagan festival of the dead (which had been held in late February, the end of the old Roman year). Later, in the eighth century BC, Pope Gregory III changed All Saints Day to November 1.
The day also used to be called Hallow Mass from Old English word “hallow,” meaning sanctify. In the Roman Catholic Church it is with all solemnity, considered one of the most important observances of the church year. It is a day on which all Catholics are obliged to attend Mass. It is preceded by a vigil of preparation on the evening of October 31.
By the time Christianity came to the British Isles, local folk had already been celebrating their own festival of the dead. In the 5th Century BC, in Celtic Ireland, October 31 was the last night of the year when summer with all its fruitfulness officially ended. It was the festival that the Celts of northern Europe marked with bonfires to help the sun through the winter. The holiday was called Samhain (Sow-en), the Celtic New Year.
Winter also called to mind the chill and blackness of the grave, and so it was a time when ghosts would walk and supernatural spirits, warlocks and witches would hold their revels.
One story says that, on that day, the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be their only hope for the afterlife. The Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended during this time, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living.
Naturally, the still-living did not want to be possessed. So on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.
Probably a better explanation of why the Celts extinguished their fires was not to discourage spirit possession, but so that all the Celtic tribes could relight their fires from a common source, the Druidic fire that was kept burning in the middle of Ireland, at Usinach.
According to author Jack Santino in “Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life” (University of Tennessee Press), “Many traditional beliefs and customs associated with Samhain, most notable that night was the time of the wandering dead, the practice of leaving offerings of food and drink to masked and costumed revelers, and the lighting of bonfires, continued to be practiced on October 31.”
The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first century AD, Samhain was assimilated into celebrations of some of the other Roman traditions that took place in October, such as their day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which might explain the origin of our modern tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
The thrust of the practices also changed over time to become more ritualized. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was customary for “guises” – people in weird masks and costumes – to go from house to house, singing and dancing to keep evil at bay, or to go about as representations of the ghosts and goblins of the night. The custom has survived today in many parts of the world.
Only since the late 18th and early 19th centuries has Halloween developed into a festive time for children, with costumes, lanterns, and games. Before then it was regarded as a night of fear, and wise men, respectful of hobgoblins and wandering demons, stayed indoors.
The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840’s by the Irish immigrants fleeing their country’s potato famine. At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates.
In the United States costumed children go from door-to-door in a ritual known as “trick or treat.” They usually carry a sack and threaten to play a “trick” on householders if they are not given a “treat,” in the form of candy or cookies.
The custom of “trick or treat” is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, “All Souls Day,” early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors.
At that time, it was believed that the dead remain in limbo for a time after death and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven
The Halloween lantern, Jack-o-Lantern, made from a hollowed-out pumpkin or turnip with a candle inside, probably comes from Irish folklore and is a relic from the day when food offerings were made to the spirits of the dead.
As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the trees trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.
According to the folktale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
The Irish used turnips as their “Jack’s Lanterns” originally. But when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-o-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.
In other words, the Christian church incorporated local Irish, Scottish, and Welsh pagan traditions into one of its own holy days. Just as the old fertility symbols of the rabbit and the evergreen tree became parts of Easter and Christmas, so have the symbols of the end of the fall harvest season and the coming of darkness become parts of a modern western-world celebration.
So, although some cults have adopted Halloween as their favorite “holiday,” the day itself did not grow out of evil practices. It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a New Year, and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. And today, even many churches have Halloween parties or pumpkin carving events for the kids.