Although Jamaica does not celebrate Halloween, it does not mean it is entirely absent from our culture. From our traditional lore to eccentric burial practices, Jamaica is a melting pot for the culture of “darkness”, the dead and some rather comical superstitions. 

How many of us have heard about walking backwards entering the house of a deceased person? or rolling calf? Or salt at our doors so evil spirits cannot enter? But first, let us backtrack a little, to a place way beyond our culture and go back to aeons ago where the echo of modern-day Halloween was conceived.

Halloween has a rich history, too rich that it’s impossible to cover its entirety in one article. It’s not that difficult to picture. Take away the glistening cheap costumes, irreproachable smiles and store-bought pumpkin baskets of young children and sit for a moment.

 The history of Halloween, credited to a Celtic festival by the name of Samhain dates back  2000+ years. This holiday was originally celebrated in November and was extremely important to its native people, signalling the shift in seasons from summer to winter.  The time also marked a time in which the line between the world of spirits of the dead and the living would be at its thinnest and where the spirits of the otherworld, as they called it, would roam the earth. This was not seen as exclusively bad, as they believed some spirits would come back to visit their loved ones and to give valuable information to them. This time also marked a change in the political and social atmosphere of the people, as important legal decisions were made around this time. But, the celts also believed that evil spirits would return and make their mischief.  The festival counteracted this belief by using its people, who would dress in elaborate costumes and disguises to confuse the spirits or hide from them. The usage of bonfires also dates back to this time, this was believed to turn away the spirits as the light from the fires simulated sunshine in a bleak wintry season. This may seem completely insignificant to us in the developed 21st century but this served as a crucial time in various cultures knowing the fate of their lands, crops and livelihoods. So when you’re all dressed up on Halloween night, snuggled in your couch watching Halloween movies, keep that in mind!

By the year 49 A.D., the Romans had conquered the majority of the Celt’s land and a merge of cultures took form. The Romans celebrated this Halloween-derivative day as Feralia, celebrated in late October to honour the passing of the dead. The Romans also had other holidays, such as Lemuria. This festival was curated for the lemures or the dangerous spirits of people who had died unlucky and violent deaths. 

But these festivals and practices came to a, seemingly, screeching halt as the reign of the catholic church took over. By the 9th century AD, Christianity propelled its way into the Celtic lands. Over time, a gradual merge of cultures took place. By the time 1000 A.D came around, Samhain evolved its way into All saints day curated by the Catholic church, who by that time had spread their reach to the majority of Europe. All saints day was celebrated to honour the saints instead of the spirits and continued to evolve over the coming centuries, transmuting into what we know today as Halloween.

This holiday has slowly been creeping into Jamaican society and culture. As of 2020-present, we do not formally recognize Halloween as a national holiday. However, it’s presence is undeniable. Although a still highly Christian society that shuns Halloween, the costumes and small communities partaking in trick or treating speaks differently. But truly, is it just modern Jamaica that recognizes it or our own culture and history is more spooky than we think? 

Jamaican folklore is in its own way, our own emblem of Halloween. For instance, rolling calves. The rolling calf is said to be a malevolent spirit, taking the form of a raging bull with blazing, fiery eyes and a body wrapped loosely in chains. These spirits are said to be the reincarnations of wicked people, especially butchers and are always exclusively male. It is said that rolling calves live near cotton trees, another staple in Jamaican folklore. To escape a rolling calf, one must drop something of value so the bull will be forced to stop and either count or study this item. Many stories of real-life rolling calf encounters take place in the Jamaican countryside, or rural areas, almost always at night. Persons recount hearing the sounds of chains pulling against the gravel of the road and the low grumble of the spirit’s voice.  People often report a sensation of terror flowing through their body and those who do see the calf, often only see his eyes glowing in the dark of the road. The rolling calf is one of Jamaica’s most well-recognized stories and truly, a staple of our culture.

Jamaican Lore - Rolling Calf
Image taken from https://aminoapps.com/c/mythfolklore/page/blog/rolling-calf-caribbean-folklore/zzXa_n8ixuBG1Pg66gLr7ElLEKK5ZEaV7E

 

Halloween often highlights and shuns witches, specifically satanic witches, an archetype of the umbrella of witches and their various representations. These types of witches are strongly represented in contemporary media and are often the ones who are well known. Jamaica has its own witch lore, presenting itself in the story of the “White Witch of Rosehall” named Annie Palmer. Although her true existence has been disputed, some claiming she had never existed in the first place, the gravity of her story has weighed on Jamaican folklore for decades. Annie Palmer, according to legend, was born in Haiti and in lieu of the subsequent death of her parents, she fell into the care of a woman who would eventually teach her Voodoo. 

In later years, she married John Palmer, the heir to a sugar plantation and estate. It is said she grew bored with him, eventually taking on male slave lovers. As the legend goes, Annie’s husband found out about her subsequent adultery and flogged her brutally. Annie, vengeful and humiliated, slipped poison into his drink and killed him, inheriting his estate and riches. As the story goes, she was brutal and wicked, using the male enslaved for her pleasures and then discarding them as she pleased. She was also known to perform black magic and satanic rituals, eventually turning it on a young girl named Millicent, the granddaughter of the local obeah man, Takoo, whom she cursed and indirectly killed with her black magic. As the legend goes, Takoo and his men stormed the great Rose Hall and brutally murdered Annie, sealing her body in a grave with a ritual to keep her from ever returning. But the ritual was never completed and Annie, in all her bloody splendour and glory is often spotted roaming the halls of Rose Hall, as pale as death.

 

Jamaican Lore - Annie Palmer
Image taken from https://www.thepalmsjamaica.com/annie-palmer-white-witch-rose-hall/

 

Jamaican lore extends further into our everyday practices and rites that have become so commonplace, its original purposes have faded to the rear of our minds. Why is it that walking backwards into the house of a dead person is done, or pouring white rum into the grave of the recently deceased? or the belief that cooking at night, will attract unwanted spirits. Jamaica has a plethora of stories, passed down through generations of people. Unfortunately, these stories are dwindling away as the generations pass, as fewer persons are growing with grandparents, the vessels of these stories and the importance placed upon the youth of Jamaica learning about their oral/folk history and culture. Despite this, these stories will always have its place in the heart of books and many Jamaicans and its stark relevance to the Halloween holiday as being Jamaica’s spooky treasure. 

 

 

Sources

https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/natural-histories-a-note-on-cotton-trees-and-jamaican-art/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/10/31/how-the-ancient-romans-gave-us-bones-of-the-dead-cookies-for-halloween/#1db922be438a]

https://www.thepalmsjamaica.com/annie-palmer-white-witch-rose-hall/

http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/style/river-mumma-the-untamed-potential-of-jamaica_155138 

 

 

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