Like with so many timeworn traditions, the original meaning and spirit of Halloween has changed dramatically since its early beginnings. The customs and rituals of the original celebration have been reinvented to suit the social climate of today, and some might say that’s a very good thing.
Where It All Began
Halloween has retained a few of the characteristics of its Celtic origins. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), was a superstitious event at which people would wear costumes and light bonfires with the belief that this would ward off the ghosts of the dead. The Celts structured their calendar around the harvest and the seasons, and being that they lived in the European parts of the world, November 1st marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of a long cold winter. Food stores and wood for the fire, collected during summer and autumn, was now all that people had to keep them from perishing in the harsh winter months.
These were grim times. Sickness and death came to people as well as crops, and in ancient times of superstition, the Celts believed that these tragedies were linked to the spirit world. They believed that the night before the New Year, ghosts of the dead returned to the villages from whence they came to wreak havoc, and it was these spirits that were blamed for taking lives and killing crops. The festival of Samhain was held the night before New Year, on October 31st. Bonfires were lit and the Celts wore dead animal skins and heads as costumes to ward off the spirits.
A Ghoul by Any Other Name
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III selected November 1st as a day to honor all saints and martyrs. Known as All Saints’ Day, the holiday incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The name Halloween comes from “All Hallows’ Eve”, the night before All Saints Day.
Trick or Treat
America’s Halloween tradition began in Maryland and the Southern colonies and spread from there. In the first part of the nineteenth century, people celebrated the harvest with some of the Celtic traditions, like dancing and singing, sharing ghost stories and fortune telling. Later in the nineteenth century, the arrival of millions of Irish immigrants helped to spread the Halloween traditions nationally. The earliest forms of "trick-or-treating" began around this time, when Americans took cues from the Irish and English tradition of dressing up in costumes and knocking on doors to ask for food or money.
Taking the Horror Out of Halloween
The late nineteenth century saw a move away from the superstitious elements Halloween and toward more community family friendly practices. This trend continued through the twentieth century until by the middle of the century, the holiday had become very much geared towards children. The practice of “trick or treating”, which had been largely replaced by at home and smaller community neighborhood celebrations, made a big comeback and the idea that neighbors who gave “treats” could prevent “tricks” from being played on them was popularized and in theory still resonates in the “trick or treat” chanting of neighborhood children today.
Halloween Traditions Today
For many people today, Halloween is about the Halloween Party. It’s a wonderful opportunity for friends to get together before the cold of winter sets in and makes going out less appealing. Each holiday has its own traditions, from chocolate egg hunts at Easter, gift giving at Christmas and candy grams and romantic dinners for Valentine’s Day. Halloween is distinguished by the opportunity to dress up and party, and decorate the house in an attempt to frighten the mailman, and for children, none of these traditions are as important as Trick or Treating. Of course, adults still love getting their own spook-tacularly delicious Halloween treats.
Dress Up and Party!
The nature of the Halloween Party depends on the ages of the invitees. Children’s parties are all about the creepy crawly nibbles and bloody beverages, playing scary games, and getting high on vast amounts of candy before terrorizing the neighborhood and asking for even MORE candy. Teen and young adults’ parties drop the trick or treating and emphasize the “dress up and be seen” element. Once witches and bloody ghouls, teenagers and young adults’ costumes have somehow transformed into bumblebees, cheerleaders and footballers (and are often about as scary as they are creative). Older adults embrace the dress up element and are no longer too embarrassed to unleash the twisted costume designer within. This is the group from which some really creative outfits have come. It’s also the reason teens don’t want to hang out with their parents on Halloween…
Second only to trick or treating, carving the Jack-o'-lantern is the most fun you can have leading up to Halloween. Cut a hole in his head and scoop the insides out, cut holes for eyes and a crooked mouth with teeth, and stick a tea light inside. Wait for nightfall and voila! You have an instant scary decoration for the front porch.
Trick or Treating
In suburbs and towns across America, children roam the streets on Halloween in search of candy. Going door to door at all hours of the evening used to be something children did alone. Times have changed, and where there are children at the front door, there are dutiful parents leaning on the back fence, counting down the final houses in the street. A note to kindly neighbors: some candy is good, some is bad. Just because your nephew never refuses your hard-boiled English sweets when he comes to visit, doesn’t mean he wants them in his Halloween tote. This is Halloween, and there are other doors to knock on. There are other candy choices! Taking up precious room where mini Twix and Kit Kats could be is a big no-no.
The practice of apple bobbing is not super popular in this day and age, but it’s worth a mention for posterity’s sake. The game is played by putting apples in a tub of water and having people take turns to try to grab each one with their teeth. Hands are held or tied behind participants’ backs to avoid cheating. Called apple “bobbing” because the apples float in the water, one usually needs to submerge their entire face in the water if they are to have any success in the game. In these days of hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes, the mixing of saliva in the water is unappealing to some, and will probably be the eventual demise of the entertaining pastime.