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Where did Halloween come from?


The word conjures images of assorted evil minions set loose to haunt and vex the world one night each autumn.

But is Halloween's reputation as a cornucopia of all things dank and dastardly deserved?

Or, has its true face been masked by time and politics?

Answering that question requires traveling back to early New England and beyond, according to Hans Broedel, a member of the University of North Dakota's Department of History and an authority on Halloween traditions.

Broedel said Halloween-type activities were observed in Great Britain and transplanted to America, but contrary to popular thought "there is almost nothing at all" to the notion they have roots in an ancient Irish pagan holiday.

Instead, according to Broedel, much of what is associated with Halloween today harks back to early practices of the Catholic Church and the late autumn celebrations of All-Souls' Day and All-Saints' Day.

"One of the things you were supposed to do on All-Souls' Day was to pray and do good works to benefit the souls suffering in purgatory," Broedel said.

"If you were a soul in purgatory, this was the perfect day to come back as a ghost to ask relatives to pray for them and do charitable works to get them the heck out of purgatory," Broedel said.

Even today, he said, many Catholics believe God can give souls in purgatory special permission to visit relatives and urge them to "Get on the stick and pray for me."

Puritan propaganda?

So where does all the spooky stuff come in?

Broedel said conservative Protestants in early New England objected vehemently to what they regarded as superstitious hokum and viewed Halloween as a Catholic bastion of superstitious practices.

Puritans saw Christmas the same way because it was celebrated on a date important to pagan Rome as the holiday of Saturnalia.

"The Puritan founders didn't observe Halloween. They didn't observe Christmas, either. They thought both were linked to paganism and Satanism," Broedel said.

The pagan connection was reinforced in the 19th century by what Broedel termed a "druidism revival."

"These people created a whole kind of Celtic-Irish mythos, and Halloween was part of that," Broedel said, stating it was during this period Halloween became closely identified with Samhain, an ancient pagan harvest festival said to mark a time when the veil between this world and the next thinned, allowing spirits to roam freely on the earth.

However, Broedel said, the earliest references to Samhain occur in stories written by Irish Catholic monks in 1100 A.D., when the church had already been around for hundreds of years.

"It's impossible to tell from these stories what was originally pagan," said Broedel.

He said the tradition of trick-or-treating has ties to All-Souls' Day and the idea ghosts can secure get-out-of-jail cards if enough people pray for them.

Children, with their relatively clean souls, were believed to be particularly effective advocates. And so they would go door to door, offering to pray for the dead in return for a "soul treat," Broedel said.

Dressing up as creatures from beyond the grave heightened awareness of the afterlife and increased the potential for boo-ty.

"It's a little bit of pump priming," said Broedel, who wrote a doctoral thesis on witches.

That led to a book Broedel wrote called "Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief."

Weird science

The title echoes that of a handbook written in 1487 called "Malleus Maleficarum," Latin for "the hammer of witches."

The book was a guide to recognizing and dealing with witches, something Broedel said began capturing popular imagination at the end of the middle ages, a time of social change and upheaval when superstition and science became dangerously intertwined.

"In the Middle Ages, the church isn't burning anybody," Broedel said.

"But then, at the end of the Middle Ages, people started paying attention to what peasants were saying about what was going on in their villages.

"Cows falling mysteriously ill. Weather changing. When they start bringing these people (suspected witches) in and start questioning them, some confess to terrible things," Broedel said.

"They are tortured, of course. But torture was an accepted way of getting a response from somebody. It wouldn't meet our standards of science, but they would have looked at it exactly that way," Broedel said.

Once evidence begins to mount that witches are real, "you have to do something about them," Broedel said.

Olson is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.