Halloween must qualify as our strangest holiday: children don outrageous costumes, plead for candy, and threaten mischief if denied. On October 30th or November 1st, the practice would end in arrest, yet on the night between, all is fair.
The roots of Halloween are tangled. The observance began more than two thousand years ago among the Celts, a people living in lands that now comprise England, Ireland, and northern France. As part of their harvest and year-end celebration, the Celts paid homage to Samhain, the lord of death, who they feared would release the dead to haunt the living. Priests built huge bonfires to ward off spirits, while animals and even humans were roasted in sacrifice. Dancing around the flames, people wore skins and bones of animals, and afterwards they took embers from the fire, to bless their home hearth.
My favorite Halloween tale carries us to the year 312, in the city of Rome, center of an Empire amid its twilight years. The new emperor, Constantine, had contracted leprosy, a dreaded bacterial plague. Constantine’s physicians prescribed a tried-and-true pagan remedy: he should bathe in the blood of slaughtered children. Imperial soldiers assembled the necessary innocents and prepared to spill their blood, but at the last moment, the sobbing of the children and their mothers persuaded the emperor to halt the massacre.
Constantine’s next move was bold: he would visit Pope Sylvester and seek a Christian cure. The pontiff received Constantine, listened to his symptoms, and finally dipped him three times in holy water. Following his third submersion, a hand — I presume a very large one — descended from heaven, seized the emperor, and lifted him from the water, cured of leprosy!
The reader may wonder how this old yarn qualifies as a “favorite Halloween tale.” I would argue that it possesses the necessary elements of gore: Leprosy is a hideous disease in which the body festers with ulcers until skin, fingers, and toes dangle and fall free. The slaughter of children for purpose of blood bathing seems to me equally grotesque. Yet even if these macabre details do not suffice, Emperor Constantine stands as a Halloween hero on other grounds, for without Constantine, we may not celebrate the holiday at all.
Earlier in the year 312, Constantine led his army against a challenger to the throne, at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. As his troops prepared to wage war, Constantine saw a flaming cross in the sky and heard a heavenly voice announce, “By this sign, thou shalt conquer!” His soldiers shrewdly painted crosses upon their shields and, thus blessed, emerged victorious. In deepest gratitude, Constantine reversed three centuries of Roman policy. No longer, he decreed, would Rome persecute the Christians; instead, he led the Roman Empire to embrace Christian faith.
And how, you ask impatiently, does this pertain to Halloween? Constantine’s decision ensured the success of Christianity, which otherwise might have perished as did other competing faiths. And five hundred years later, when the church had grown to dominate Europe, Christians in England created the holiday that would become our Halloween. Rather than resist the local customs, the English Christians incorporated the harvest festivals of Samhain into a new, more civilized holiday. November 1st became “All Saint’s Day,” and the night before was “All Hallow’s Eve,” or “Hallow Eve,” gradually becoming “Halloween.” Thus, although most pagan rituals fell to disuse — bathing in the blood of children, for example — the church permitted the ghosts, demons, and costumes of Samhain to enter Christian culture.
Halloween arrived in America during the mid-1800s, amid the great Scottish and Irish immigration. The ancient practice of sacrifice had deteriorated into simple mischief, such as releasing farm livestock. The “trick or treat” game evolved from an All Soul’s Day tradition in which Christians begged neighbors for bread, promising prayers in exchange. The “Jack-o-Lantern” seems to reflect the Celtic practice of taking home flame from the bonfire, and additionally an Irish folktale in which a loner named Jack wanders the night with only a single ember, held in a hollow turnip, to light the way. Instead of turnips, Americans carved pumpkins, fatter gourds that grew abundantly.
A final point about Constantine: At Halloween we celebrate mischief, and western history knows no greater mischief than that done in Constantine’s name. First, hear the end of the leprosy story: Cured and still dripping holy water, Constantine turned to Pope Sylvester. In gratitude, he gave the pope the imperial crown and, with it, power to rule the empire. Sylvester, preferring his religious duties, returned the gift. This story was recorded in a document entitled “The Donation of Constantine,” referring to the emperor’s offer to give up his empire. The Donation was interpreted as a fundamental statement about the relative power of popes and monarchs. Medieval scholars believed that Constantine’s action established a precedent, giving the pope a holy authority to crown and depose kings. Although it sounds strange to modern ears, the Donation featured centrally for generations of politicking between the church and royal families, as they built alliances or fomented rebellions over interpretations of power that had root in Constantine’s famous Donation.
And now we come to the mischief: In the 1400s, a scholar named Lorenzo Valla sat down and analyzed the Donation of Constantine and discovered that the document was a fake, probably written four centuries after Constantine’s death. The leprosy story was nonsense and the centuries of turmoil had been founded upon a colossal fraud.
A fitting Halloween story? The final word belongs to the Italian poet Dante: “Alas, Constantine, how much evil didst thou mother!” The comment is a stunning pun, referring both to the strife that stemmed from the fraudulent Donation and to the fact that the Emperor’s mother was a lowly prostitute, a truth which Constantine despised. The greatest “Your mama” joke in all history and a cutting double entrendre, all befitting a Halloween surprise.
(Author’s note: I wrote this light-hearted essay in the mid-90s, when teaching high school history in Manhattan. If you enjoy these essays, please subscribe. Just scroll to the bottom and click ‘Follow This Blog.’)