History of Halloween as holiday celebration

Category:  News
Wednesday, November 1st, 2017 at 6:29 PM
History of Halloween as holiday celebration by Hannah McDonald & Livia Homerski
Photo: Hannah McDonald

A chill had descended upon Edinboro University as both a cold front and Halloween approached this past Monday. In Compton Hall, three Edinboro professors from the anthropology, history and language department presented a spine-tingling, educational panel in celebration of the holiday.

Dr. Lenore Barbian — head of the anthropology department — discussed instances of cannibalism in the United States and South America. Professor Amanda Frantz-Mamani of the Spanish department covered the traditions and history of Día De Los Muertos — more commonly known as the Day of the Dead — and Dr. Jerra Jenrette discussed the images of witches and the history of Halloween. 

Barbian was first to present and dug into the topic of cannibalism and whether or not it’s an urban myth. There was a focus on the Native American group, the Anasazi, who inhabited the Southwest from 900 to 1250 A.D. Specifically, the sites of the Mancos and Cowboy Wash with “pot-polished” and missing bones have led to speculation. 

The “Smoking Turd” as Barbian calls it, is a piece of fossilized feces known as coprolite. It consisted of only meat and tested positive for myoglobin, a chemical found in human muscle. However, aside from the people testing the alleged evidence, no one else has been allowed to run tests on the excrement. There is also no testing done on whether myoglobin exists in human feces with a presumably non-cannibalistic diet. 

Other pieces of evidence for determining whether cannibalism exists or not include percussion fractures, cut marks, burning and pot polishing, which is smoothing at the surface of the bone and can only be seen under a microscope. Pot polishing could be caused from cooking bones in a pot, leading to careful erosion of the edges, Barbian said.

Barbian also discussed the Turner Farm case in Penobscot Bay, Maine where over 70 individuals were cremated and there was a question of cannibalism. The biggest revelation came in Feature 24 — a site at Turner Farm where remains were found — where only 10 percent of the bones were found to be human, and the rest were animal bones. The burial of animal bones was common to the Susquehanna, and not too much was proven out of the ordinary in the case. 

Despite the speculations, Barbian brings to light an urban mystery and more research is deserved to unearth the origins of cannibalism. 

If you ever taken a class with Frantz-Mamani, then you may be aware of her enthusiasm for all things Día de Los Muertos. “Day of the Dead” — which falls on the first and second days of November — is meant to be a journey to the next life and a time for families to remember those they’ve lost. 

Frantz-Mamani discussed the history of the holiday and the ways in which it originated. South Americans already had rituals and practices to honor their dead. When Spain and the Catholic Church began to influence the Mezo-Americans, cemeteries and relics were introduced and popularized. 

One of the most iconic characters of Día de los Muertos is the Doña Catrina, a skeleton woman. José Guadalupe Posada created her and as he says, is a reminder that, “Death is democratic because in the end, everyone becomes a skeleton.” 

Items such as possessions and food that the family member enjoyed and that may be needed for the journey are placed on altars. There are many symbols of Día de los Muertos such as yellow marigolds to lead the dead on their journey, pan de muerto, sugar skulls, papel picado and monarch butterflies to carry the spirits of the departed. 

Many places throughout the world celebrate Día de los Muertos other than just South American countries. There are celebrations in the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan along with the U.S. as well. What makes this holiday important to people all over the world is the emphasis on family tradition, which is truly the heart of this celebration. 

For those who would like to enjoy some more Día de los Muertos influenced media, films such as “The Book of Life” and “Coco” are some of Frantz-Mamani’s recommendations.

As the night drew to a close and Halloween grew closer, Jenrette took to the podium to talk about the history of the second most popular holiday in the U.S. She spoke for nearly 20 minutes on how the tradition began in northern Europe, the idea of the witch became popular and how Halloween spread to the U.S., gaining a massive foothold in the holiday economy.

The tradition began as one of the four main Celtic holidays. Originally it was called Samhaim and was hosted on Nov. 1. It was on this day, ancient Celts believe, the veil between the living and the spirit world was the thinnest. Then, spirits could return and communicate with living beings once more, Jenrette explained.

When the church gained power in Europe, the Pope and other clergy tried to eradicate pagan celebrations and ways of life. This included the Celtic holiday Samhaim.

The holiday was a prominent part of life for many Europeans and could not be entirely stopped, so the church instead tried to convert it into a Christian celebration, of sorts, in an effort to dissuade the Celts from acknowledging their own traditions beginning in the 8th century. In the 10th century, the holiday was renamed All Soul’s Day.

In 1486, the church outlawed pagan religious practices. It was this same year the book “Mallenus Maleficarum” was published, outlining what a witch looked and acted like.

This image of a witch — described by Jenrette as an ugly woman who still has the power to seduce and manipulate — remained popular and continued to be connected with the image of Halloween.

Today, the witch is one of the top costumes in American Halloween culture. While Halloween gains a larger financial foothold each year — growing from a total of $6.9 billion spent on the scare-centric night in 2013 to $9.1 billion in 2017 — the witch is just as popular.

Hannah McDonald & Livia Homerski can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com.

Tags: halloween

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