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.
In the seventies, classic horror films like The Exorcist showed that evil was real, lurking inside children like Linda Blair’s character. Family units were disintegrating from culture-changing events like Vietnam and Watergate, and in 1974, celebrants wore masks of President Nixon, reflecting our nation’s uncertainties. A post-war suburban sprawl created a landscape of anonymity, says Skal, and sensationalized news spooked parents, who were reluctant to send children trick-or-treating because of reports of candy poisoned with drugs and chemicals. After the rise in this “Halloween sadism,” the concept of “scary” became hot and profitable, in the form of fake blood, haunted houses, and horror flicks of the Halloween variety.
To be certain, Halloween is a rich and complex holiday. Here's a list of more traditional ways to celebrate:
- Check your local newspaper for a nearby Día de los Muertos festival, which may be a culturally different experience for your child.
- Carve something other than an orange pumpkin. Turnips, for instance, were the traditional “candle holders.”
- Resurrect a once-popular activity of bobbing for apples in a basin, or “snapping” for apples, in which the fruits suspend from strings.
- Revive a lost tradition by baking an apple tart with a coin hidden inside for your child to find. (Look up other tasty Irish Halloween dishes in which you can do this).
- Wear costumes of real people or intellectuals who’ve made a contribution to the world, rather than the trite black cat, pirate, or French maid. If your son loves science, he can dress as Albert Einstein. If she loves art, she can be Mona Lisa.