The Hidden History of Halloween

The Hidden History of Halloween

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Updated on May 16, 2009

Kids don ghoulish gear on October 31, but most aren't aware of the cultural customs that have molded Halloween into a massive event as marketable as Christmas. It wasn’t always about jack-o’-lanterns and trick-or-treating. Ancient Celts and Catholic societies of old Europe practiced rituals that have paved the path for today’s Halloween. People of Mexican descent observe their own celebration, Día de los Muertos, to remember the departed, which in turn has its roots in indigenous cultures like the Aztecs, who celebrated the festival of Mictecacihuatl, or “lady of the dead.”

Mixing early customs with new influences, such as slasher movies, urban legends like the Boogeyman, and our culture’s consumer tendencies, Halloween continues to morph into a highly commercialized monster. The Salem witch trials in the 17th century, for instance, gave birth to the popular witch costume – with pointy hat, broomstick, and crooked nose. In the seventies, the celebration itself was a form of socialization: a way for kids to playfully get revenge on adults on an evening of controlled chaos.

“[Halloween is] a patchwork holiday or cultural Frankenstein stitched together from a number of traditions,” writes horror historian David J. Skal, author of Death Makes a Holiday. The most outlandish and cartoonish of holidays, Halloween is often thought to have pagan origins, even though its etymology is Christian. Along with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, it’s a time for honoring saints and those who have left us. Folklorists, however, connect it to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end,” when people prepared for the tough winter ahead.

“It was also a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad,” writes  Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. The Irish held feasts and bonfires to ward off spirits and face fears of change and death. This link to the otherworld exhibits the ancient feast’s ties to contemporary Halloween, in which we celebrate death, fear, and the paranormal.

The celebration’s beginnings in North America were planted in the nineteenth century, perpetuated by Irish immigrants to assert new identities as middle-class citizens, who were interested in entertaining and socializing. “Revelers were given a special license to be merry on Halloween, and the public respected the tradition,” writes Rogers. “Neighborly pranks were very much a part of the festive raillery,” as was rowdiness and vandalism.

The idea that it’s okay to be mischievous – or wield power over others – has evolved over time. The high-pointed hat of your child’s witch costume, for example, is a symbol of astonishing mental power, and also resembles a dunce cap of sorts. The image calls to mind the alleged witchcraft, and its condemnation, practiced by citizens in Puritan Massachusetts who were tried and hanged.

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