Boys and girls of every age
Wouldn’t you like to see something strange?
Come with us and you will see,
This our town of Halloween!
– From “A Nightmare Before Christmas” by Tim Burton
Halloween is one of those things that’s pretty obvious. It’s a spooky time of year when everything seems a little depressing – why not make it fun? Yet any history of the holiday starts with ancient Celts and Romans and winds up … not entirely making sense. How do we get from religious celebration to gorging ourselves on sugar?
There’s a story here that may or may not mean anything. But, like most history, it’s interesting when told properly.
There’s no doubt that the roots of the holiday lie in the Celtic holiday Samhain (se-MINE) – one of two days of the year when the realm of the dead is very close to our world. Celts would light bonfires along roads to guide spirits along their “proper” route so that they wouldn’t feel the need to come knocking at the door. Smaller candles were put inside hollowed out veggies, like turnips, to keep them out of the wind so they could burn all night.
In England these traditions became absorbed into “Guy Fawkes Day” on the 5th of November. On that day in 1605 a Catholic radical was caught with barrels of gunpowder underneath the House of Lords, the triggerman for a plot of revenge against the anti-catholic laws of the day. Each year he is burned in effigy all over again, with leave-stuffed clothes to make up the “Guy”. He is often propped up with a cup to raise money for the charities in the weeks ahead, asking “A penny for the Guy?” Our use of the term “guy” as a generic term for “man” comes from this.
In Ireland these traditions became more absorbed into Catholic life, turning into a time when prayers were offered for the souls of the dead. It was combined with All Soul’s Day and celebrated as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en. People often went door to door to comfort those who had experienced a recent loss and pray with them.
Like so many things in the US, our history is one of the Irish arriving in a land of freedom and finding the cork pulled from all the persecution and superstition. In the 19th Century the date became associated with pranks and vandalism, often blamed on the souls of the dead that must have been roaming the lands. There are stories that this was a big night for the KKK, a group with deep Scotch-Irish roots, using the cover of superstition for terrorist activities. None of this is very clear as it was not written down well, but the night became known for mayhem and chaos.
Civic leaders stepped in and found something else for kids to do. In 1920 the first organized Halloween was put on in Anoka, Minnesota as an attempt to corral the energy away from pranks and into more “wholesome” fun. Good kids were rewarded with candy and the term “Trick or Treat?” became associated with the celebration. It caught on, and by the 1940s spread across the US.
The association of candy with Halloween also ran strong in Texas, where the Celtic traditions smacked into the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos. This seems to be another amalgam of Catholic holidays and pagan beliefs, in this case Aztec in origin. In this holiday ancestors are presented with treats on an offrenda or alter, and a picnic is often held in the cemetery where their mortal remains lie. It’s a joyous time of reconnection and fun, not pranks, so the modern concept of Halloween as day of candy caught on very early in the 20th century.
What we can be sure of is that Halloween, as we know it in the USofA, is about a century old at most. It was created deliberately and caught on because it fit well with ancient traditions and a need for civic order. The wandering dead meandered in meaning from being the dearly departed to tricksters and gradually our own children made up in costumes. The bonfires were put safely into pumpkins and the offerings to our ancestors became little treats served up by the whole community.
The pagan roots evolved into other kinds of celebrations in other lands, but they feel about the same in the end. It’s a spooky day that gradually turned into fun and civic organization. More than anything, it marks the passage of our world away from superstition and towards civic organization and other more boring stuff. But the mischief and mayhem shows through Halloween, making it a lot more fun than other holidays.