Well, tonight is Halloween so I thought I’d write up something about it.
I think we’re all pretty familiar with the monsters and scares and stuff as a Halloween trope, but I wanted to look a bit more into what else is going on with this day of the year, where it came from, and how I’d fit something similar into my games.
This should also give readers a bit of insight into how I research stuff – I’m going to pull most of the stuff in this post from the Wikipedia entry for Halloween, and maybe a couple of the other pages I find reference to there.
So, where to start?
Halloween is the name given to All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day (since that’s what a hallow is). The general idea of the Christian festival (apparently three days worth called Hallowtide) is to remember the dead, especially martyrs, and generally there’s a vigil of some kind. It also has it’s own foodstuff – the soulcake!
Now, where did it come from? Well, there’s the whole issue of it crossing with earlier pagan festivals, in much the same way as Easter and Christmas, but let’s look at the Celtic festival Samhain, which seems to be the most obvious contender for that.
Samhain (pronounced closer to Sawin) apparently comes from Old Irish for ‘summer’s end’ (the modern Irish for summer is ‘samhradh’, in case you were wondering), and it’s generally seen as celebrated across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
The other Celtic nations Wales, Cornwall and Brittany have a related festival which I’ll get into a bit below.
Samhain, as the end of the harvest and the start of the darker half of the year, is a liminal festival, so the borders between the living and the dead are thinner, and spirits and ‘fairies’ have an easier time wandering around – and need to be bribed with offerings.
And then we’ll move forwards again – things people do at this time of year.
We’ve got divination games like apple bobbing, interpretation of dreams, and mumming/guising where people dress up to perform plays or reciting verses or songs door-to-door in return for food. And of course there’s the playing of pranks.
So, remember those related festivals in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany? In Wales, Calan Gaeaf was the first day of winter, in Cornwall Allantide or Kalan Gwav would mark the first day of winter, and in Brittany Kalan Goañv was also the first day of winter.
Allantide has people going to apple markets to buy shiny red apples to give as gifts for good luck, with young women using them as divination tools during dreams to see their future husbands, or hanging them beneath candles as a sort of inverse apple bobbing.
And places where spirits might congregate, such as crossroads or graveyards, get avoided, due to – you guessed it – a greater presence of spirits than normal.
I think just from all that above, we’ve covered costumes, trick or treating, the importance of apple bobbing, the closeness of spirits and the dead, the harvest and oncoming darkness of winter, and the fact there’s a weird blending of traditions going on here.
Then we start pulling stuff together from related traditions – Devil’s Night/Mischief Night, which is a sort of extended trick-only thing, the Day of the Dead from Mexico where ancestors are remembered, the Slavic Dziady festival which apparently translates as ‘forefather’s eve’, and a couple of Roman festivals for Pomona the goddess of fruits and seeds, and Parentalia for the veneration of family spirits and Lemuria for the exorcising of malevolent ones.
OK. That’s all the reading I feel like transcribing – I’ll skip the bits about symbols and skulls and turnips for jack o’lanterns, you can go read that yourselves.
Let’s pull this all together for the purposes of a roleplaying game.
If we’re lazy, we can attach it to a D&D deity of the dead, and have it be some sort of festival for that, but we can also have it be a folk festival and even throw that liminal idea in – the boundaries between the Here and Now and the Hereafter are exceptionally thin and we have to protect ourselves against that.
People gather, they light fires, they perform rituals – from eating certain foods to the divination games above to performing plays.
Maybe they dress up to protect themselves from malevolent spirits, maybe they all gather together in one place from dusk until dawn.
And maybe they call on the spirits of their ancestors to protect them from any malevolent spirits who would wish them harm.
OK, I think I can see a couple of fun ideas forming here. Now find a way to work in apples and it practically writes itself…