Spooky Halloween traditions still practised in Prairies have deep roots in harvest history

While Halloween has taken on a festive feel, experts say the rituals, scary stories and eerie traditions that are now part of the holiday have their origins in dealing with the dangers, uncertainty and fear that often came with the harvest season in farming communities of the past.

Experts say scary stories, rituals have traditionally helped deal with change, uncertainty of harvest season

Tom Webster, owner of Nocturnus Art and Metaphysical in Saskatoon, applies incense to a burner at his shop. People enjoy Halloween traditions, he says, because it's a time when the worlds of spirits and of the living are 'very much interconnected.' (Don Somers/CBC)

This piece was originally published on Oct. 31, 2019.

As the days get shorter and darkness sweeps over the Prairies in the lead-up to the winter months, it may be no surprise that people in Saskatchewan start to embrace the eeriness of October.

Mock graveyards with plastic tombstones have popped up on lawns across the province, along with witches and zombies, in preparation for eager trick-or-treaters.

While the season has taken on a festive feel, though, experts say this time of year — bringing the harvest and the change of seasons — has traditionally been a time where ruin and death were very real dangers if things didn't go according to plan.

"Farming communities in Saskatchewan were basically subsistence-level farmers," said Frank Klaassen, an associate professor with the University of Saskatchewan's department of history, noting many farmers in the province's past "were two harvests away from starvation."

"You might be able to get through one bad harvest, but two bad harvests were absolutely cataclysmic … especially when you don't have the structures that are put in place to help you out," he said.

The time of year also marks three significant celebrations centred around the spirit world, said Klaassen. On Halloween, the spirits can run wild, he explained, as Nov. 1 — All Saints' Day — is considered a holy day by many, and one when spirits must be on their best behaviour. 

The following day — All Souls' Day — is intended to be a day to remember the departed.

Frank Klaassen is an associate professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan. In traditional farming communities, he says, the harvest season is one where 'in a whole range of ways, death is around you.' (Rosalie Woloski/CBC)

"In northern climates, this is a time when the trees shed their leaves. When they go into a period of dormancy. When literally, you've got to slaughter animals in the north because you can't keep them over the winter," Klaassen said.

"So in a whole range of ways, death is around you."

Terrifying tales relieve stress, offer warnings

Modern agricultural communities have some safety nets and supports to help them out in a bad harvest, like crop insurance and the Farm Stress Line, but it's still a tense time for many.

The work of taking crops off the land involves long hours, sometimes brutal labour and an immense amount of co-ordination.

But in the old-world agricultural communities where many Saskatchewan farmers have their roots, the stress was magnified by the fact some who were present at the beginning of harvest — usually the community's weakest members — would be lost forever by spring.

"People are under a lot of pressure," said Sharon Wright, the department head of history at the University of Saskatchewan's St. Thomas More College. "So knowing the harvest has failed means there will be certain death in your community." 

Sharon Wright, an associate professor of history and the head of St. Thomas More College's history department, says frightening stories could serve both as warnings and as a way to relieve stress in traditional agricultural communities. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

It's at these times of uncertainty that people turned to sharing stories, to both relieve stress and encourage caution, she said.

"One of the origins of stories, then, is as a pressure valve in these communities where potentially there's a lot of stress. So you tell stories — often very terrible or violent stories — as a way of reducing stress in your small community." 

One of the symbols that was regularly used in those stories was the Grim Reaper. A hooded figure who harvests souls with a scythe, the Grim Reaper would serve as a reminder to live well, Wright said, as death was a very real presence ready to take you at any time. 

The Dance of Death is featured in The Nuremberg Chronicle, a history book first published in 1493. The image was used as a way to encourage people to live well to ensure a good afterlife, Wright says. (Submitted by Sharon Wright)

She also has a hunch the telling of such stories allowed traditional farming communities a sense of power over things that caused them to feel very real fear.

"It allows you, I think, to feel like you are in control something in your life, or in control of how you respond to that story," she said.

"You can terrify other people with it, you can enjoy terrifying them — but at the end of the day, everyone is alive at the end of the telling."

Community bonds

Even today, community members will take part in practices that used to be rooted in the survival and strength of the community, said Kristin Catherwood, a folklorist and Heritage Saskatchewan's director of living heritage.

Even the act of trick-or-treating, she said, could represent the idea of community members helping one another, as it's basically children going to their neighbours and asking for food.

"The fact there's the handing over of the food item is actually symbolic for this time of year," she said.

An image from an early harvest in Saskatchewan is seen in this archival footage from CBC News. Some of the spooky Halloween traditions still celebrated today have their roots in ancient harvest communities. (CBC Archives)

She says in some Saskatchewan communities, the practice of "trick-or-drinking" is also a way people gauge the strength of their communities and neighbours.

Similar to mummering on Canada's east coast, the tradition sees adults go door-to-door exchanging food and — as the name explains — alcohol with people they know in the community. 

"It's someone who is familiar with you in everyday life, but within sort of the performance of this tradition, you're showing up to their door as a stranger and it's sort of a test of community — 'Will you let me in your house and will you give me hospitality?'" she said.

Once the stranger has been welcomed into the home, the host tries to unmask the person who they've invited in.

"It's a test of 'how well do you know your community members,'" she said, but added the tradition has some deeper symbolism. 

"With this time of year, it's a test of, 'If times got hard, would you let me in? Would you help me? Would you provide for me? Do you know me well enough to consider me part of your community?'"

She also said it was a way for people to distract themselves from the coming winter or escape from daily pressures — of being an all-providing farmer, for example.

"If you can, for one night a year, step out of that role that you play in society and mask yourself in another identity, it does provide sort of a relief valve for some of that psychological pressure," she said. 

'Realms are very thin'

People today are still eager to ensure their homes and families are protected from some of the darker spirits that may be present during the harvest season.

Tom Webster, owner of Nocturnus Art and Metaphysical in Saskatoon, said it's not uncommon for people's minds to turn to the mysterious at this time of year, known to the ancient Celts as Samhain.

Surrounded by a wide range of herbs and ingredients, Webster says there are numerous ways people can guard  against dark spirits as the veil between the living world and the spirit world thins. That could include, for example, putting a candle in your window to ward off malevolent spirits.

"It would also help guide spirits of your ancestors, because Halloween and Samhain, being a very ancestral time of year, we are honouring our ancestors as they are essentially moving on to the afterlife, or being reborn." 

Jars of devil's claw and dandelion root on display at Nocturnus Art and Metaphysical. Tom Webster, the store's owner, says there are a number of plants and herbs that have traditionally been used as protection against dark forces. (Don Somers/CBC )

He said resins like frankincense, myrrh, cedarwood and pine could also be burned to help protect a home from an unwanted presence.

He said at his shop, this is season when people are more aware and more curious. 

"For Samhain and Halloween in general, this is a time of year when people are interested in practising different traditions and trying out the different folk customs that have been used for centuries," he said. 

"Simple traditions like this, I think, people have a fun time playing with this time of year, because it is a time of year when our realms are very thin and very much interconnected."