If asked to explain what Halloween and Christmas have in common, I suspect that most folks would identify director Tim Burton’s 1993 movie, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It is a bizarre, if not especially scary tale, about Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, whose discovery of Christmas Town prompts him to urge the creepy ghosts, goblins, skeletons, mummies, and bats of Halloween town to help Halloween Town celebrate Christmas. Whatever you might think of the movie, most viewers agreed that Burton’s attempt to combine the two holidays was, like Burton himself, unique. In truth, the two holidays have more in common than most of us realize.
The most obvious similarity is that both holidays are pagan interpretations of Christian holidays. Christmas officially marks the Feast of the Nativity, the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ. The Nativity was not recognized until the middle of the fourth century but the celebratory aspects of the Christmas season began thousands of years earlier to honor the birth, death, and rebirth of the pagan sun gods on the Winter Solstice. Halloween, on the other hand, began as a Christian holy day–All Souls Eve, the night before All Souls’ Days–and morphed into a pagan-like holiday. Both holidays retain the combination of Christian and pagan elements although the religious celebration of All Hallow’s Eve is not what it once was.
Both holidays also featured customs in which the underprivileged members of society, predominately but not exclusively young men who had emptied a bottle or two of ale, rubbed their face with charcoal, threw on some old, torn clothing, and went house to house requesting some benefit in exchange for an implied promise not to inflict damage on those homes where the requests were refused. Centuries ago, the benefit was likely to be food, drinks, or coins but more recently a couple of Fun Size 3 Musketeers have had to do. During the Roman Saturnalia, these practices began as a practice of role reversal, generally accompanied by parading in antlers and fur, other types of costumes, or cross-dressing.
After Saturnalia became the Christmas season, the basic elements of the practice–dressing in costumes, going from home to home requesting food and drink, the promise of a song or similar performance from the participants, and the implicit threat of some form of retaliation if the food and drink were not forthcoming–evolved into Christmas traditions commonly known as “mumming,” “guising,” “caroling” or “wassailing,” the latter label based on an alcoholic punch served by the English at Christmas time. These practices had occurred under one name or another throughout Europe, Great Britain, Russia, and America since the sixteenth century.
For example, an old English Christmas carol, “Here We Come A’Wassailling,” commemorates that practice from the singers’ point of view, including the need for “a silver sixpence.” Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace describes the practice as mumming in nineteenth-century Russia. Alfred Shoemaker’s landmark study Christmas in Pennsylvania explains that essentially the same custom was called “Belsnickling” in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. All of the variations included some threat that the homeowners who did not provide the requested food or drink could find their homes damaged but these threats appear to have been largely part of the fun.
The celebration of Halloween in the United States during the twentieth century, of course, bears a remarkable resemblance to the Christmas mumming and guising except that it is typically candy, not alcoholic punch, that was provided. The phrase “trick or treat” repeats the warnings implicit in the Christmas celebrations–that is, the homeowner must provide a treat or suffer some trick–but, as in the Christmas celebrations, the tricks were generally either idle threats or relatively innocuous actions like turning over an outhouse.
The third similarity between Christmas and Halloween was the prevalence of ghosts, goblins, and other spirits of the dead. In central and northern Europe, an essential part of Yule was the Wild Hunt, a spectral hunting party in which the Germanic god Odin, riding an eight-legged horse, led the hunt whereas Nordic god Thor led the hunt in Scandinavia. The Wild Hunt purportedly occurred on the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, the same period as the twelve days of Christmas. While the premise that pagan German gods decided to conduct their hunt on the same twelve days that the Catholic Church chose for the observation of Christmas and Epiphany is a little too convenient to have any credibility, the critical fact (as if this were any more credible) is that Odin’s right-hand woman, Berchta, entered every home on the last night of the Wild Hunt by flying her broomstick down the chimney.
Berchta was the goddess of home and hearth, which is why she happened to have a broomstick with her, and she inspected the home to make sure the housekeeping was up to snuff and the children were well-behaved. If the child’s behavior was good, Berchta would leave a coin or similar treat; if the behavior was substandard, folklore tells us, Berchta would disembowel the child, filling the stomach cavity with pebbles and straw before sewing it back up.
Some early depictions of Berchta showed her as young and beautiful but the look that stuck was an old, haggard woman with stringy hair and crooked nose–in other words, the archetypal witch. The same character turns up as Le Befana, the Italian Christmas witch who leaves gifts on Epiphany, and the Russian Babushka, a similar character. Thus, the witch who gets so much attention on Halloween is essentially the same character as the Germanic goddess who concocted the concept of entering homes through the chimney on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Christian missionaries reimagined Odin and Berchta as St. Nicholas during the Middle Ages but her legacy should not be forgotten.
Tom A. Jerman