New York's Upside-Down Holiday
David Earle, Stephanie Fike, and Michael Galkoski
History of the Feast
Halloween, an upside-down freak festival or a night of majestical power? A modern
anti-festival associated with devils, demons, ghosts, and ghouls; or a mystical link to a
Celtic past; or a Catholic Holiday?
It is probably that the modern Halloween (a word we first meet in the
17th Century) originated from an ancient Celtic harvest holiday called Samhain,
meaning Summer's End. This festival is also known as Hallowanas, All
Hallows Eve, All Saints Eve, Festival of the Dead, and
the Third Festival of Harvest. This holiday of Samhain is closely associated with
witches, and is celebrated by modern wiccans today.
Samhain was the Celtic New Year, in which the celebrating could not begin until
sundown. Samhain was also known as the The Feast of the Living
Dead, because it was believed that the dead would come back to life, eat and
celebrate with the living. These two facts explain the reasoning for why Halloween is
celebrated at night and why costumes of dead and other horrifying things are worn.
But Halloween is also connected to the celebration of the Catholic feast of All Saints' Day. This holiday
celebrated on the first of November is the honouring of all the saints, known and unknown.
All Saints Day grew from very small roots. In the beginning, every saint was given a
special dayon which to be honoured. However, this soon became problematic as the number of
saints grew to be too many. In the late fourth century, the church selected a day to
honour only martyrs and St. John the Baptist. As time went on, others were gradually added
and the celebration took place the Friday a week before Easter. In 609, Pope Boniface IV
ordered an anniversary to celebrate the martyrs and Blessed Virgin after he consecrated
the Pantheon in Rome to them. This ignited an idea for Gregory III and in 800, a chapel in
St. Peters was consecrated to All Saints and the anniversary was set for 1
November. There was still a problem with this, only certain people in the church could
celebrate the holiday until in 837, Gregory IV opened the celebration to the entire
church, maintaining the date of 1 November.
At some stage the Catholic Feast of All Saints got mixed up with older festivals,
including Samhain. Sometimes people like to see this as the survival of "pagan
traditions", but we should remember that as it expanded the Catholic Church
deliberately allowed the incorporation of older rituals. (See Pope St. Gregory I's Letter to Mellitus which encouraged the missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons to allow some leeway for pagan
All the common traditions of today Halloween can be attributed to the ancient Celtic
tradition of Samhain, and it seems to have been brought to the United States in the 1840s
by Irish immigrants. Trick or treating was done by everyone, and
ironically it focused more on the adults than the children. Instead of the children going
from door to door, the adults would go from house to house receiving treats, which was
usually liquor, and they would go caroling along in bands, The fun game of bobbing
for apples was a marriage tradition, in which who ever got the apple would
be married later that year. In Scotland and Ireland, the idea of the Jack-O-lantern was used to protect the house from evil spirits which could harm the family. In
modern Britain, where the festival is much less of an event than in the US, Lanterns are
made with swedes (what Americans call rutabagas) rather than pumpkins.
Halloween in New York Today
Today Halloween has developed into a festival of costumes, drinking, and the
celebration of human spirit. One of the best places that the Halloween tradition can be
seen is in the Village Halloween Parade, which takes place yearly on
Halloween on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village N.Y. In this celebration, crowds of men and
women dressed in extravagant robes march down 6th Avenue in celebration of life. Men
dressing as women and women dressing as men is a common practice in this "upside
Originally a gay event, the Village Halloween Parade has been
celebrated for about twenty four years. Today it draws all aspects of people looking to
celebrate the Halloween tradition. It has been televised for the past couple of years on New
York 1. The size of the parade is what has changed the most. From about 150 people
participating in the parade the first year, it has grown to over a million and a half
people participating today.
Although the costumes are still inspired by a gay aesthetic, the streets these days can
be a less than gay-friendly environment, with a number of gay bashings each year.
The Halloween parade offers people a chance to come and celebrate the holiday and be
anything they want to be. Though the parade has changed throughout the years, it is a more
diverse celebration which has grown from its gay origin.
Other "Upside Down" Holidays
New York's Halloween then, is a modern gay adapation of an 19th century Irish immigrant
holiday. What gives it a link to the middle ages is the link with Samhain and with
the festival of All Saints. The holiday is also, however, a manifestation of another
medieval tradition - the "turning the world upside down" tradition, in which the
poor and social powerless (peasants, children, women, or as in modern New York, gays) took
over a day and made it their own.
Feast of Fools
A Medieval holiday celebrated on the 1st of January. The Feast of Fools has no connection with April Fools Day. This "upside down" holiday
involved clergy and serious townspeople dressing in costumes and masks, while the state,
and the superiors who ran the state, were mocked. Most of the very influential people of
this time did not take part in this celebration because it exposed the obvious distinction
of power between rich and poor.
The celebration of the feast, eventually died out during the periods of the
Enlightenment and Reformation. The celebration was basically an excuse to have a great
time and act unusual. Sound familiar?
Celebrated on the day before Lent begins, was the last hurrah for Christians to reverse
roles and enjoy life. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday")
was a feast of food, drink, and human life. In Latin countries it is often known as
"Carnival" (meaning "farewell to meat"). Much of what it is
today. Mardi Gras was brought to the United States in 1682, when New
Orleans was claimed in name of King Louis XIV. Similar to the tradition of "upside
down" festivals people dress in "weird" outfits and celebrate the holiday.
Marti Gras is different than other festivals in that it is celebrated for a period longer
than one day. Interestingly in both modern New Orleans, and in Brazil it is also a time
when sexual norms are ignored.
The Day of the Dead
Celebrated. especially in Mexico, on November 1st and 2nd, the Day of the Dead was a festival for children and the deceased. Families of the deceased would visit the
graves of their families and put flowers, pictures, food, and death objects on the graves.
They would also put these objects around the house and around the pictures of the dead.
This festival is still celebrated today.