For those who love a holiday feast for the eyes, check out the seasonal books published by Taschen, the German bookseller specializing in beautiful “coffee desk” photo books about fashion, art, architecture, and popular culture. One of my favorite volumes is a collection of Vintage Holiday Graphics for the Halloween holiday, edited by Jim Heimann. Below is an interesting review of the holiday, from the book, written by Steven Heller. The essay is followed by some fun Halloween shots from our recent holiday in the Big Apple, including spooky houses, little ones in costume, and grown up ensembles staged by Henri Bendel’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue
It is hard to imagine a more paradoxical day of celebration than the one where ghouls and zombies freely haunt the populace to their cold heart’s content—an entire day dedicated to torment. Of course, Halloween is the exact opposite, in fact it is celebrated to release body and soul from life’s torments. Halloween is one of the most theatrically exuberant and visually spectacular of all annual festivities. Mardi Gras nights compare, but Halloween has many more extravagantly bizarre icons….ghost, goblins, skeletons, black cats, and jack-o-lanterns….each intended to spike fears and raise the hackles of the collective good. Despite its contemporary libertine connotations, the celebration originates in ancient Druid and early Christian superstitions and religions. The word Halloween is a contraction of the Roman Catholic All Hallows’ Eve (hallow meaning sanctify) and the Celtic Irish celebration of Samhain, the harvest festival later called Hallow E’en, both of which take place on October 31. In the fifth century BC Ireland, this day marked the end of the summer and eve of the New Year. In Catholic countries it was also the eve of All Hallows’ day or All Saints’ Day, a solemn observance to honor saints. In European folklore it was the day when the spirits of those who died during the preceding year returned to possess bodies of the living, wailing to frighten away the insidious spirits. Ultimately, living—their only hope for an afterlife. Rather than submit to such an ordeal, the common people marched boisterously through their villages on the night of October 31 dressed in ghoulish garb, wailing to frighten away the insidious spirits. Ultimately, wearing scary costumes and carrying out irritating pranks became ritualized into common and secular custom.
Trick-or-treating is said to have originated with a ninth-century European custom called “souling.” On November 2, All Souls’ Day, early Christians went from house to house begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. Each soul cake was currency that paid for a prayer by the beggar on behalf of the dead. By the nineteenth century pranks and tricks had been added to this ritual. The phrase “trick-or-treat” however was not codified until the 1930s America, as a means to control hoodlum mischief—treats being bribes to persuade children not to wreak havoc.
The ubiquitous jack-o-lantern derives from an old Irish tale. A nasty drunkard named Jack slyly tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, thus trapping the devil. To be set free the devil was forced to agree never to tempt Jack again. After Jack died de was denied entrance to Heaven and Hell, but was given a single ember to light his way throughout a bleak eternity. The ember was placed inside a hollowed out turnip. The Irish called turnips “Jack’s lanterns,” but when Irish immigrants came to America they substituted more plentiful (and easier to carve!) pumpkins.
Over the centuries spirits and poltergeists have taken on various gaseous and protoplasmic forms, from eerie to cute. Meanwhile skeletons and skulls, which are ubiquitous in Mexico’s raucous Das of the Dead (a combination of All Saints’ Day with All Souls’ Day), serve to symbolic the mortality of flesh and mutability of man.
Christianity also gave Halloween the sign of the ominous black cat. Medieval Christians feared cats, especially black ones that could sneak invisibly around at night. In turn they slaughtered them by the thousands , and the resulting swarms of rats and mice infested the villages and carried infected fleas that triggered Europe’s devastating Black Plague. Millions of human deaths were later blamed, not on the vermin, but on witches, heretics condemned to death by the Church.
During the early mass conversions the church expediently adopted certain pagan rites, but later forced converts to abandon them. Keeping evil creatures at bay became one of the functions of Halloween. Eventually, modern fiction added a slew of monsters….vampires, werewolves, mummies and ghouls…to the liturgy.
Today the religion has been removed and what remains is the fun of being scared out of one’s wits!