October 31

Pagan: “a follower of a rustic or provincial religion”
from the Latin pagus, meaning a rural district.

The word “pagan” goes all the way back to the Greek root pagos meaning “that which is fixed”. “Fixed” as in “staying in position”, not like, your dog.

After crossing the Adriatic, the Romans used the word pagus to refer to a rural district. Pagan came to mean “country-dweller”.

Under Constantine, Christianity was not only tolerated, the religion replaced paganism throughout the Empire, with a top-down implementation. [For a more scholarly discussion, see the deleted “Storm” scene from X-Men 1.]

Long after Europe had converted to Christianity, some country-dwellers continued to worship their local and regional deities and observe the seasonal rituals of their ancestors to ensure prosperous harvests. Eventually the name for country-dweller became synonymous for followers of the old religions.

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What makes Halloween so special among American holidays is that it appears to harken back to its pagan roots without the veneer of a Christian holiday, like Easter and Christmas. While Celtic and Germanic traditions such as Walpurgis Night (Witches Night) and Beltane (May Day) have all but died out, Halloween is among the most widely celebrated holidays in the U.S.

And while several national holidays (such as Memorial Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Labor Day) are celebrated with parades, sports events, or barbecues, Halloween has several holiday-specific traditions that are celebrated at no other time of the year. This puts it in a small class of holidays that include Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Independence Day. Yet unlike the above holidays, Halloween is not recognized by the U.S. government. Nobody gets the day off. And still Halloween captivates the country at large and is becoming increasingly popular in Europe. This may be why Halloween has been singled out as contrary to the teachings of Christianity by some sects.

In truth, the holiday owes as much to traditions picked up during the celebrations of the ‘All Saint’s Day’ as to its pagan past. An observer of the Celtic holiday Samhain would hardly recognize the holiday today. Samhain was a cross-quarter day (directly between the equinox and solstice) when the Celts would practice acts of divination—predicting the future.

Some historians believe it was also a day to commemorate the dead, which is why the Pope moved All Saints’ Day–originally May 13–to November 1 to compete with the age-old local pagan traditions.

German and Irish immigrants brought their harvest traditions with them to America in the 19th century, such as the good old pagan bonfire on All Hallow’s Eve.

Hallowe’en masquerade parties were fashionable in Victorian America at the end of the 19th century. By the 20th century, the holiday belonged to the kids.

Which came first, the trick or the treat?

The British tradition of playing pranks on one’s neighbors on the night before Guy Fawkes Day (instituted 1606) traversed the Atlantic, taking hold on All Hallow’s Eve. On the nights leading up to All Soul’s Day, youths would take gates off their hinges, soap up neighbors’ windows, and create all-around havoc and mischief. (Now October 30 is known as Mischief Night). Today kids are much less prone to pull pranks on Halloween, but are more than happy to receive their sugar-coated pay-off.

Halloween is at once a caricature of traditions of rustic peoples, as seen through the eyes of their former enemies, and a wholly unique celebration, that has picked up its own imagery and rituals throughout the centuries.

On Paganism and Etymology

Halloween: Customs, Spells and Recipes

Mischief Night

October 30

At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity.

We now return you to the music of Rámon Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.

In England Mischief Night originally referred to April 30 (May-Eve or Witches Night), the evening before May Day. Exactly six months apart, May Day and Samhain (November 1) were two of the four cross-quarter dates that Celtics and Druids celebrated during the year. The term Mischief Night was later applied to November 4, the evening before Guy Fawkes Day, when youths would play pranks on unsuspecting neighbors, like soaping up windows and prying gates off their hinges.

When and how Mischief Night got transferred to the evening before Halloween isn’t clear. In the United States, where Guy Fawkes Day isn’t observed, youths in the 1930s took it upon themselves to cause mayhem on the nights leading up to Halloween. What began as minor vandalism–egging cars and toilet papering houses–moved on to arson and destruction of property. In the 1980s and early 1990s, cities such as Camden, New Jersey, and Detroit–where October 30 is called “Devil’s Night”–reported over 100 fires in a single evening. Since that time however, serious Mischief Night crime has significantly declined.

It’s ironic that originally November 1 was the big holiday, and All Hallow’s Eve, was its prologue. Now Halloween has become the major holiday in itself, and Mischief Night fulfills some of the purpose Hallow’s Eve used to serve.

War of the Worlds

The greatest Mischief Night prank ever pulled happened seventy years ago today. A 23 year-old stage and radio actor named Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Players broadcast a radio rendition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Rather than creating a static stage reading or radio-play, Welles took the extraordinary step of reciting the events of the novel as if it were a real news broadcast.

After the initial introduction, in which Welles explained this was a radio play of War of the Worlds, a fake announcer took the listener to the Park Plaza Hotel to hear to music of “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” The music was periodically interrupted to inform the listener of live events going on elsewhere, from reports of a gas explosion seen on Mars, to the crash landing of an alien craft in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

REPORTER: More state police have arrived. They’re drawing up a cordon in front of the pit…Wait a minute! Something’s happening… (Hissing sound) A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from that mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame! (Unearthly shrieks) Now the whole field’s caught fire. (Explosion) The woods..the barns…the gas tanks of automobiles…it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right… (Abrupt dead silence)

ANCHOR: Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grover’s Mill…We continue now with our piano interlude…

It was so realistic that listeners who tuned in after the introduction had no idea they were listening to the Mercury Theatre drama-hour…

ANCHOR: Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.

The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most starling defeats ever suffered by an army in modern times; 7000 men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. 120 known survivors…

The monster is now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center. Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.

Tragically, New Jersey was in tact. However, the broadcast reached an estimated 6 million listeners and led to widespread hysteria across the tri-state area.

At the end of the broadcast, Orson Welles assured his listeners that the prank was simply:

…the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!…we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night…so we did the next best thing…So goodbye everybody, and remember please…That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian…it’s Halloween.

Orson Welles, October 30, 1938