Last Updated on April 6, 2021 by Helga Dosa
History of Halloween, from the Romans to todays Italy
Halloween in Italy: is it just an excuse for kids to spray shaving foam on strangers’ cars, and for adults to dress up and party, or is there more to it?
These days, many have the feeling that Halloween has become more popular, especially among the younger generations, than Italy’s very own Carnevale, those two weeks right before Lent when Italians get crazy about dressing up and playing tricks on their friends. Sounds familiar? Yes, it does remind a lot of what Americans do on Halloween. Carnevale has plenty in common with Halloween and not only because it’s a holiday with a penchant for tricks and costumes: there is some food only cooked this time of the year, too and, of course, the Carri di Carnevale, some of them (think of Venice and Viareggio) known all over the world.
In Italy, however, Halloween has been making amazing progress over the past few years. And according to research, the search term “Halloween” comes up more often on Italian online searches than “Carnevale”. Are Italians all becoming Halloween fanatics?
Halloween in Italy
Italy imported this festival from the USA through films, TV and pop culture. It all started as a way to entertain children with the famous trick-or-treat routine. Certainly, Carnevale is still superior, but tendencies are looking undoubtedly more and more in favor to Halloween. This is throwing some controversy into the laps of religious authorities in Italy. Halloween is starting to develop a superior influence over Italy’s All Saints and All Souls Day, on November 1st and 2nd respectively, and many worry about the fact that it may turn what is supposed to be a time to remember our dead with love and cherish, into yet another occasion to party.
However, if we look at the true origins and the true meaning of Halloween, we’ll see that they’re not that different from what Italians celebrate on All Saints and All Souls Day. If, from a commercial point of view, Halloween is an All-American product, its spirit is rooted in antiquity and comes very much from Europe. Halloween, known by the Celts as Samhain, was originally nothing more than a day to remember and honor the souls of the dead. It’s been here since before Christ, witness to the wholly human necessity to remember and love those who are no longer physically with us. Celebrations of Halloween were popular in Ireland and Scotland and when people from these countries emigrated to the US in the 19th century, they brought this custom along. America then made of Halloween what we know today, whereas Europe remained attached to the more spiritually oriented celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Day.
In Honor of the Dead: Italy before Halloween
All Saints Daywas introduced by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th Century to remember the Saints killed to defend their faith, the martyrs. Initially, the celebration was held on May the 13th. About one hundred years later, it was moved to the beginning of November to replace the pagan festival of the end of Summer, which was also strictly related to the worship of the dead.
Here Comes Halloween. With an Italian Accent
It was the beginning of the 90s, I remember I was in downtown Rome, in October. It showed sparse signs of Halloween: shops here and there sold Halloween candles and decorations. As time passed, stores started catering to the Halloween Holiday, featuring rows of costumes, make-up and tons of decorations. For Italians, it’s really not the meaning behind Halloween that counts: they are happy to celebrate their dead on All Souls Day. Halloween is just an excuse to have another festa. Any day is good to party: if this wasn’t true, Italians would stop being Italians.
It was the American movies and tv series of the 80s to make Italians aware of Halloween: ET by Spielberg showed what Halloween was about. Some American horror flics also made quite an impression and left gnarling expressions on European faces: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm’s Street, and Halloween created the strangest of backgrounds for this sort of ancient candy-land of a holiday also in Italy. Lo-and-behold, the Italians seemed to like this type of over blown, over the top celebration and started to enjoy it: dress up parties for adults are held more and more often, and in schools is usual to have a small “trick or treat” session on the day.
Let’s not forget, though, that there is history behind Halloween, too.
The Celtic people were very much in touch with their spirituality and were thought to be able to communicate with the land of the dead. Profoundly respectful of their dead and the afterlife, it was one of their own festivals, that of Samhain (as we mentioned above) to give most likely origin to Halloween. Samhain was celebrated for three days, between the end of October and the beginning of November. People engaged in crazy things: men and women would dress up like each other and tricks were played a-plenty. Samhain was the most important of all four fire festivals because it may have marked the Celtic New Year.
During the Samhain rituals, fires would be left to burn for the entire winter, and sacrifices, both animal and human, were performed. Offerings were given to the gods as gifts. Sacrifices ended eventually in the 17th century, but the tradition of the bonfires kept alive and it’s still very much en vogue in Ireland and the UK today. The term itself, bonfire, is pretty interesting: because of the relevance of sacrifices, the term was, originally, spelled bone fire, as in a fire for bones, or of bones. With time, and also with the decadence of sacrifice rituals, the spelling of the word changed.
Samhain was a special time for the Celts, the beginning of a transition. Families united for a season of endless nights, of intense activities in the house, and numerous stories were told.
But there was more to Samhain: the druids, the ancient priests of the Celtic religion,knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The curtain between this world and the world of those no longer living was drawn aside, and for those who were ready and open, journeys to “the other side” could be made in safety. Getting in touch with the deceased was an important means of protection, and was useful to gain guidance and inspiration. The dead are honored not as dead, but as living spirits of loved ones who hold deep wisdom. The Celts truly believed that supernatural forces were alive and active, and entities were free to wander where they pleased. The living could communicate with the dead, while the dead returned to earth to communicate with them. As time passed, these spirits had become wild and diabolically described, with wicked intentions. In Ireland, tombstones began being placed over the dead for protection of the burial, and so that the dead could find their way back.
There was fear of these wandering spirits, as they could taunt humans: they were believed to be able to lure men and women into their enchanted worlds, where they’d be for ever trapped. Villagers would frantically try to entertain these spirits, in hope to appease them enough with treats such as food, drinks or fruits, lest they kidnapped humans. By use of masks on their faces and grotesque costumes, they thought they could scare them away. They would walk around in packs like masquerading replicas of demons, hoping to go unnoticed by the spirits closing in. This is, indeed, how the idea of dressing up for Halloween comes from.
Once Christianity arrived in the land of the Celts, All Saints Day began to be celebrated at the beginning of the Autumn, and ties were knotted between the Christians and the Celts through these celebrations somehow infested with spirits. This ritual continued to survive throughout the centuries, and eventually started to be celebrated on a single day, on October 31st, lest it would interfere with the Christian celebrations of the following two days. In spite of having so much in common with All Saints and All Souls Day, Samhain remained fundamentally a pagan festivity: it became known as “All Hollows’ Eve”, from which Halloween.
Bobbing For Apples
Apple bobbing was around already at the time of the Celts. Masked party-goers would duck their heads into a barrel of water, in hopes of grasping a bobbing apple with their teeth. This was entertainment for the Celts, and the first person to come up with an apple in their teeth was said to be the first to marry in the coming year, and blessed with an ability to grasp good fortune.
They were used for protection and they may have originated in Ireland or Scotland. However, during Samhain, night travelers used lanterns marked with monstrous expressions to frighten off the spirits. Such lanterns were also placed on windows and doorways in hope of protection over houses.
In truth, it’s possible that the first Jack-o-Lanterns were not pumpkins at all: the Irish most likely carved out beets and turnips. After they immigrated to America, they found them scarce, so they continued their tradition using pumpkins. These vegetables were thought to represent the souls of dead people. Faces were carved out to resemble demons, light up with frightening faces that were believed to scare away evil spirits. If an evil spirit saw himself, he may scurry away in terror! Thus these pumpkins, or Jack-o-Lanterns were used for protection. Not many Italian children take part in the joy of pumpkin carving, as this practice is not particularly known. Hopefully they will learn to enjoy it, as many others have for so long.
Symbols of Halloween
Nocturnal animals were said to be capable of communicating with the dead, among them bats, cats and owls, which are all rightly considered symbols of Halloween. Thanks to modern fiction and cinema, monsters such as vampires and werewolves are today very much associated to Halloween, too. But they’re more related to the commercial side of it, rather than its original, spiritual version.
Witches & Halloween
This is holiday time for witches, too: Halloween tradition says that witches meet on Halloween to prepare charms and spells. When midnight arrives, they all participate to special rituals such as future reading in mirrors, cards or dancing around the Sabbath Circle.
Black cats are one of the main symbols of Halloween. Witches were believed to be able to turn themselves into black cats, and black cats were thought to be a witch’s best companions. Witchcraft is, in fact, one of the dominant themes of this holiday, especially after the stereotype of the ugly, old, green-faced witch was created by ” The Wizard of Oz”‘s make up artists in the late 1930’s.
Halloween in Italy: Costumes & Trick Or Treat
Italians today still agree on the fact that Halloween does not have any strong meaning for them: this is true, in the sense that Halloween is an acquired event, and Italians, by culture and religion, have been celebrating their dead on the 1st and the 2nd of November for over 1000 years. Slowly though, as fancy dress parties take over the nights of Halloween all over the country, Italians have begun to like Halloween as an occasion to party.
Trick-or-treating has not yet become, in Italy, as popular as it’s in the US. But what’s the origin of this well loved American tradition? Well, it seems it’s not American at all! Evidence says that on October 31st, children in Dublin would be spotted in small groups, adorned in bizarre garments with faces painted or masked. They knocked on doors and shouted “we are the Hallow-E’en party you got any fruits or food?” They would wander from house to house, singing seasonal songs, a time to get into the mood of the season. A good chance is that this was the beginnings of what we know as Christmas Caroling, too.
Some all-American traditions, however, have probably lent a hand to the development of trick-or-treating; in the 19th century, New York little children, called “ragamuffins” would dress in costumes and beg for pennies on Thanksgiving. Finally in 1939, the term trick-or-treat appeared in print. By the mid-20th century pranks lessened and Halloween calmed to house parties and mingling of young trick or treaters. Not many Italian children are familiar with the trick-or-treat tradition, as we said. Only few of them go door to door with pillowcases stuffed with candies, chocolates and various treats ranging in different shapes and colors.
Souling is another particular European custom that could have some connection with trick-or-treating. Beggars would wander in hope of collecting soul cakes. The more cakes they could collect, the more prayers were said for their relatives that passed away. Another possible link to Halloween’s trick or-treating may be found in the British Mischief Night, when children and adults alike would dedicate the night to play tricks on friends. Many of these practices were brought to America by immigrants and most likely developed into our trick-or-treat.
Edited by Francesca Bezzone
** Images thanks to https://www.facebook.com/pages/Zombie-walk-roma-Pagina-ufficiale-/207081302659654?fref=ts
See also: Halloween events in Italy