It’s celebrated around the world, and goes by a number of different names, including All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Eve, and Night of the Witches. We hold fantastically dark themed costume parties, tell scary stories, and play pranks on one another. Carved pumpkins and fake spider webs adorn front porches, while costumed kids collect mountains of candy from the surrounding neighborhoods. A full quarter of all candy sold in the United States is purchased for Halloween, and quickly devoured afterward. Bowls and piles of candy appear on desks in offices around the country as we join our children’s candy gluttony as we “make sure they don’t eat too much” of it. That’s what Halloween means to many of us today.
For a horror author such as me, it’s a great time of the year. Seems like everything you see is horror, from the month-long horror film marathons on television, to unique events such as the Can’t Look Away horror exhibit going on right now in Seattle’s Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Yes, it’s a beautiful time of the year for horror!
This year, expect to see hordes of zombies and vampires, even the sparkly ones. Never before have these ages-old monstrosities been as popular as they are now, just in time for Halloween. It’s a time for everyone to get a little wild, explore their dark side, and dress and act outrageously with the full blessing of normal society. Yes, that’s Halloween, but its origins are starkly different than the holiday we celebrate today.
Its origins date back to the early Celtic festival, Samhain (pronounced sow-an), a celebration of summer’s end in what is now the British Isles. It was a time of festive gatherings, bonfires, and celebrations, originally with less association with the supernatural or dead than what we see today.
It originally marked the end of summer harvest and the beginning of winter. The Celts associated winter with death, and rightfully so. Throughout history, the cruel cold and dearth of supplies of winter often causes higher death rates than warmer months. They came to believe the boundary between life and death blurred on the night of October 31, and the ghosts of the dead could return to earth that night. Their fall harvest celebrations blended with rites and rituals celebrating the dead.
It wasn’t until long after Ireland converted to Christianity that it got the nickname “All Hallows Eve”, and it wasn’t until it reached the shores of the New World that carved jack-o’-lanterns and candy were a part of its celebrations. Pumpkins were not known to be carved until around 1837, and only associated with Halloween in the mid-to-late 19th century. The first recorded evidence of the term “trick or treat” was in 1927 in Alberta, Canada, where accounts tell a tale of demanding treats similar to what we know today.
Halloween became much more of a community event in America in the late 19th century, trying to limit the religious and superstitious connotations it had come to be associated with. Parties became more focused on the foods, games and costumes of the season than the ghoulish and grotesque aspects of it. Since then it’s returned somewhat to its roots in a celebration of superstition and everything ghastly and frightening.
In reality, many of the Halloween traditions are gathered from a number of sources, including rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, when they combined the Samhain celebrations with Feralia, a late October Roman holiday commemorating the passing of the dead. It was further linked with the church with the celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1, as established by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century. It is widely believed this blending with All Saints’ Day was an attempt to replace pagan Celtic festivals of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday of a similar nature. Dressing up to beg for treats from house to house also has religious roots, in Christmas “wassailing” back in the Middle Ages, and we see a slightly different evolution of this in Christmas caroling today.
The religious connection with Halloween is an interesting one. Because its traditions have mingled with religious rituals from its earliest origins, the two are forever linked. Some embrace the link, attributing sacred significance to the holiday, where others reject it, saying it celebrates the occult, paganism or devil worship.
Whatever your opinion of Halloween, as varied as they might be, it’s a significant holiday, celebrated in many countries around the world. While some countries haven’t celebrated it until recent years, it is becoming more and more popular everywhere. It transcends the borders of national holidays, and goes beyond the confines of religious celebrations. From Japan, India and the Philippines, to Europe, to countries in Central and South America, one can find Halloween festivities.
This year I still haven’t decided what I’m going as. I do a pretty darn passable Indiana Jones with a beat-up 20-year-old fedora and leather jacket. I also do a very realistic and scary dark sorcerer, dressed in a traditional black woolen djellaba I procured in Morocco many years ago. Inevitably I’ll end up traipsing the local community with the kids, doing the great autumn candy swap we do every year. We go out gathering candy while the wife stays home giving more away as fast as we can collect it. In the end, we usually end up with about what we’ve bought, which is generally more than we should probably eat.
So however you chose to celebrate Halloween, whether by attending ghoulish masquerade parties, trick-or-treating with the little ones, or something more somber and religious, be safe and have fun. Have a great Halloween, and stay scared, my friends, stay scared!