I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.(The Rocky Horror Picture Show) Be afraid… Be very afraid.(The Fly) It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare.(Halloween) Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble!(Macbeth) The ghosts are bad but the one that’s cursed, is the headless horseman; he’s the worst.(The Legend of Sleepy Hallow) Magic is really very simple, all you’ve got to do is want something and then let yourself have it!(Halloweentown)
Welcome back everyone- hey- wait a minute, how did you get behind me without me seeing? Say the line? Uh… right- welcome back to another Thoughts piece by me, ya boy, Joe Van! And man, oh man! Are we in for a great piece: Halloween! What a holiday! I wonder why I love it so much? Could it be like a death denial thing through faking scary killers? Eh, who knows? Either way, whatever it does, it does so different than any other holiday. There’s something truly magical about pretending to be a monster you would otherwise fear if you saw it at any other point throughout the year. So, in honour of this glorious holiday, I plan to do a deep dive into its history… to find out how we got to have it in the first place.
Let’s start with the word, because of course that’s what I’m going to do! The word Halloween dates back to 1745 and is of Christian origin, as I’m sure we all know. The word itself means “Saints’ evening”. In Scots, the word “eve” is even, and this is contracted to e’en. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved to: Hallowe’en. The phrase “All Hallows’ Eve” is first found in 1556. That means it took us 189 years to abbreviate it! Now-a-days things can’t get abbrev’ed quick enough! This is just the word, though. Surely the practice is much older. Where does IT originate?
As I’m sure y’all caught on, Christianity may have named it but it was really a relabel. The tradition came from a pagan, Celtic, origin near the 10th century until being consumed by the all-powerful force of Jesus. Christianity was like the Disney of its time, consuming other peoples’ content into one homogeneous house. Before this happened the records were sparse, but it clearly stemmed from the tradition of Samhain. Samhain was a festival to celebrate the new year of ancient Ireland. Their new year started at the beginning of winter in their medieval Gaelic calendar, which for them was October 31st to November 1st. Not only Ireland followed this, but Scotland and the Isle of Man. For the Celts, a day ended and began at sunset; thus the festival began on the evening before November. So, does that mean we’ve really been celebrating a new year twice this whole time? Who knows. All we can say for sure is that although the traditions we now know as Halloween traditions, dating back to the ancient Celtics, came from that time and area, the basic idea of honouring the dead on one night spans much farther back in time and across the globe of almost all cultures of humanity. An easy other example is the Day of The Dead in Mexico on November 2nd.
In the recorded beginnings of Samhain there were household festivities, which included rituals and games intended to foretell one’s future, especially regarding death and marriage. They included apple bobbing, nut roasting, mirror-gazing, pouring egg whites into water, dream interpretations, and others. Along with that, special bonfires were lit. Nothing was materially special with them, though. It was just special due to the night. Their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers; using something called sympathetic magic. To the Celtics, the special fires mimicked the Sun, helping the “powers of growth” and holding back the decay and darkness of winter. In Wales, their bonfires were lit to “prevent the souls of the dead from falling to earth”. In Scotland, these bonfires and divination games were banned by the church elders in some parishes. Later, thanks to Christianity, these bonfires served to keep “the devil away”.
Now before going on, I gotta spit my opinions about the occult and ghosts. While I love the idea of them, and love how spooky it all is, I do not believe in supernatural entities, ghosts, and the like. And when I say I do not believe in them, I am NOT saying I believe they are not real. That’s an important distinction. It’s not on me for not believing in unsubstantiated claims, the same as it wouldn’t be on you to prove me wrong on my (totally legitimate) claim that all ducks are secretly stalking me! Leave me alone duck species!! And I’ll add, it not like I didn’t try to believe. When I was a teen, my friends and I went on several ghost hunting expeditions into abandoned buildings, scaring the hell out of ourselves! But… not finding even a hint of paranormal activity.
Now here comes the actual crazy shit. From at least the 16th century, Samhain included mumming (a word to describe what we now know as LARPing) and guising (a word that has now been replaced with the term ‘trick-or-treating’). That means the traditions of Halloween at its core have actually been the exact same for 500 years! So even wayyy back when, people went house-to-house in costume, usually reciting verses or songs, in exchange for food. These were people who still practiced hunting and gathering, but would somehow make time to do this shit. Dope. I guess for them this was their only way to unwind. The only difference I found online to separate our dressing up now versus then is it may have originally been a tradition whereby people impersonated the Aos Sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf. Now-a-days it’s movie characters. Back in Scotland, youths went house-to-house with masks, painted or blackened faces, and often threatened to do mischief if they were not welcomed. In parts of Wales, men went about dressed as fearsome beings called gwrachods, (I’m assuming the ‘g’ is silent) A.K.A. witches or sorcerers. In the late 19th and early 20th century, young people on the English outskirts used Halloween as an opportunity to cross-dress. Wearing costumes and playing pranks at Halloween was now spread far and wide, including the idea of patrons using hollowed out turnips or mangel beets carved with grotesque faces as lanterns. They were made to both represent the spirits and be used to ward off evil spirits. By the 20th century they became generally known as jack-o’-lanterns.
Spreading to America, Anglican colonists in the southern United States and Catholic colonists recognized ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ in their church calendars, although the Puritans of New England strongly opposed the holiday, along with other traditional celebrations of the established Church, including Christmas. It was still seen as pagan to them and thus, evil. Almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th century give no indication that Halloween was widely celebrated in North America. It wasn’t until mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the mid to late 19th century that Halloween became a major holiday over here. Though first confined to the immigrant communities, it was gradually assimilated into mainstream society.
While the first reference to guising in North America occurred in 1911, that soon evolved with the earliest known use of trick-or-treat appearing in 1927, in the Blackie Herald from Alberta, Canada. Thousands of Halloween postcards were produced in the 1900’s. They commonly showed children in costumes, but not in the act of trick-or-treating. Trick-or-treating didn’t become a widespread practice until the 1930’s, with the first US appearances of the term (trailing behind Canada,) in 1934, and the first use in a national publication occurring in 1939.
A popular variant of trick-or-treating, known as trunk-or-treating (or Halloween tailgating), occurred around the same time and is still practiced today. Children are offered treats from the trunks of cars parked in a church parking lot, or sometimes a school parking lot. In trunk-or-treat events, the trunk of each automobile is decorated with a certain theme, such as Happy Potter, Finding Nemo, Noah’s Ark, or job roles like plumbing or teaching. Trunk-or-treating is popular is rural areas due to its perception as being safer than going door to door, as well as the fact that homes are built a half-mile apart.
Another trend that grew in the 1930’s was Halloween-themed haunted houses! And people loved them. They grew so popular, in fact, that by the late 1950’s haunted houses as a major attraction began to appear in fairs, circuses, and the like. Regulations at the time were essentially non-existent, but all that changed in 1984. On the evening of May 11th, in Jackson Township, New Jersey, the Haunted Castle in Six Flags caught fire. As a result of the fire, eight teenagers died. The tragedy was immense, resulting in backlashes found in the tightening of regulations relating to safety, building codes, and the frequency of inspections of not just Six Flag, but attractions nationwide. Facilities that were once able to avoid regulation because they were considered temporary installations now had to adhere to the stricter codes required of permanent attractions. The smaller venues, especially nonprofit attractions, were unable to compete financially, and other, better funded, commercial enterprises filled the vacuum. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, theme parks entered the business seriously. Six Flags and Universal were the big players. Then Disney threw their name in the hat, popularizing it even more. With places like Canada’s Wonderland and the others today, ‘theme-park haunts’ are by far the largest Halloween-themed frights, both in scale and attendance.
To pull ourselves back to the main idea of Halloween again, while Christianity owns the metaphorical copyrights to it, what do the other religions of the world think about the holiday? In Judaism, Halloween is not permitted by Halakha, because it violates Leviticus 18:3; which forbids Jews from partaking in gentile customs. For Islam, Sheikh Idris Palmer, author of A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam, has argued that Muslims should not participate in Halloween, stating that “participation in Halloween is worse than participation in Christmas, Easter, so on… it is more sinful than congratulating the Christians for their prostration to the crucifix”. Javed Memon, a Muslim writer, has disagreed, saying that his “daughter dressing up like a British telephone booth will not destroy her faith as a Muslim”. For Hinduism, they have their own thing. Hindus remember the dead during the festival of Pitru Paksha, during which Hindus pay homage to and perform a ceremony “to keep the souls of their ancestors at rest”. It is celebrated in the month of Bhadrapada, usually in mid-September. Finally, amongst those who describe themselves as Neopagans or Wiccans, some do not recognize Halloween, but instead Samhain on the following day.
Now to end with a global outlook. How does the world see Halloween? Mass transatlantic immigration in the 19th century popularized Halloween in North America, and celebration in the United States and Canada has had a significant impact on how the event has been observed in other nations. This larger North American influence, particularly in iconic and commercial elements, has extended to places such as Ecuador, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, most of continental Europe, Japan, and other parts of East Asia. In the Philippines, during Halloween, residents return to their hometowns and purchase candles and flowers to prepare for All Saints Day. And finally as I mentioned earlier, in Mexico and Latin America they celebrate The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos. Most people from Latin America construct altars in their homes to honor their deceased relatives and decorate them with flowers, candies, and other offerings.
Now I pass the question off to you! How do you celebrate Halloween, if you even do? What did you know about the holiday? Did you learn anything new with this little dive I’ve done? And the most important question of all, what are YOU going to be this year?? Let me know wherever you can! Thank you again as always my beautiful fellow humans! I wish you nothing but ghoulish love, and ask you to remember, to keep on thinking. Goodbye, and happy Halloween!