Opinion | When people think of Halloween they picture a particularly American holiday with candy, costumes, and mischief, but Halloween has its somewhat ambiguous origins in multiple countries. Halloween is much more an amalgamation of multiple holidays and traditions. The earliest accounts we have of Halloween being celebrated is the record of a pagan Gaelic holiday named Samhain (pronounced SAH-won). Samhain was a celebration of the beginning of the winter and the end of summer. Celebrated on the night of October 31st through to the dawn of November 1st. Roughly situated between the winter equinox and the summer solstice, to mark the end of the harvest. Samhain was also a tradition of honoring and celebrating the dead. It was believed that the barrier between the living and the dead was weakest during this time, allowing recently dead spirits to be free to haunt, comfort, or escape their spiritual purgatory to either ascend to heaven or plummet to the underworld.
Animal and crop sacrifices were common during the celebrations. A way for people to show appreciation to their god(s) by offering something of their own which held significant meaning or value. Dressing in masks and costumes was commonplace, as was lighting torches or bonfires. People believed they could ward off spirits and hide from the dead by masking their own identities. Others would attempt scaring them off with flame
Another tradition that would be commonplace would be to leave a food offering outside of your house, to appease the spirits and keep them from haunting you in the future. Kind of a ghost bribe, in a way. “Eat this and please don’t bother me in the future”. It’s not hard to see how these celebrations and customs that were practiced as a part of Samhain tradition, echo into the modern-day celebration of Halloween. The two holidays are not by any means synonymous with each other, but the similarities are hard to deny.
For pagan holidays such as Samhain, the full extent of their traditions, and the true meanings they held have become muddled and reinterpreted over time. Christians adopted many of the traditions of pagan holidays, but on this holiday put their spin on the customs and put the meanings behind them.
The next possible link between Samhain and Halloween is All Saint’s Day. A Christian holiday celebrating the dead that had originally taken place in May, but was moved to November, the believed purpose is that it was to be the replacement for Samhain. This still isn’t clear, however, as there is evidence to suggest that all Saints day was moved to replace the much older Germanic holiday of “All Hallows Day”. The night of which, became All Hallows Evening. Eventually, the holiday had been shortened to Halloween by the people of Scotland, leading to the first known instance of the holiday’s iconic moniker we know today.
Other holidays had also become blended into our modern interpretation of Halloween such as All Soul’s Day which had traditionally been celebrated on November 2nd to honor and mourn all souls and allow them a chance to escape their purgatory.
The three days between October 31st and November 2nd became known as the All-Hallow Tide. The three days of the All-Hallow Tide would see traditions and celebrations that would look a lot like the Halloween we know today. Costumes of the dead, pumpkin or turnip carving, scary tales, light vandalism or trickery, and the candy bribes to stop them.
In modern-day Halloween is celebrated and pretty much defined by Trick-or-Treating. The thrill of dressing up in costumes and masks and ringing the doorbells of your neighbors with bags in outstretched arms waiting to receive a piece of candy and hoping it’s the fabled full-size bar you’ve heard they gave out one Halloween passed. Kids would swap stories of the best houses to get candy that wasn’t tootsie rolls and dare each other to ring the bells of the most intimidating residences, only to turn heel and book it if God forbid someone answered the door.
Seemingly Not such a large part of Halloween anymore, mischief night was a big part of the Halloween mythos to me as a child. I can remember listening to stories of my father going out on mischief night as a young boy, where he and his friends would get into all sorts of trouble that was explained to me as sort of acceptable because of the holiday. I can recall sitting in my bushes with a paintball gun in anticipation of fending off attackers wielding eggs and toilet paper. Thankfully I never had to use it because no vandalizes ever came.
I remember one year in about 4th or 5th grade, my friends and I dressed as soldiers, as we all had an army obsession for a few years. We ran through the neighborhood hopping fences and crawling under bushes, stopping at each door to pick up our sugary parcels. Seeming trivial and playful at the time, it has become a very nostalgic memory for me. It’s one of the last times I allowed myself to enjoy my childhood rather than racing to grow up. As an adult, Halloween allows you to pretend to be something else. Dressing in costumes and masks was a way to indulge in childlike fantasy even for a moment. Halloween grants us the freedom to play like a child, even when we’re too old to do so.
To me, Halloween embodies this feeling of immaturity, fantasy, and playfulness. A macabre holiday to celebrate the dead, and poke fun at the idea of death, which we fear in our everyday lives. Halloween is an annual reminder that we should not always take ourselves so seriously. A time for children and adults to let loose their inhibitions and pretend to be a monster, ghost, or pop culture icon, only to go right back to their true persona at the festivities’ end.
I would anticipate the holiday all year as a child, dreaming of piles of candy. As a teen and in my twenties, the holiday was anticipated for parties and social engagements, where you can have fun and dress wild. As a father, I anticipate Halloween to see the joy and wonder on the faces of my children as they enjoy the same feeling I had as a child. That feeling of childlike lawlessness, where it feels like today is their day. A day to roam the neighborhood when property boundaries melt away, and children rule the neighborhood.
The Changing leaves
I feel it’s important to try to keep the magic alive for the next generation. My wife and I work hard to make holidays special for our kids, and though I don’t feel that my children have the same feeling I had as a child, I do feel it’s as close as it’s currently going to get. Times have changed Halloween significantly. Even before the pandemic, the way children trick or treated was different. I don’t see nearly as many children off on their own these days. I also don’t blame parents for not letting their kids roam free as I do not let my children loose either. A tradition we have kept since my kids were big enough to trick or treat, is that we take the SUV, with the back open, and drive down the road stopping at each house for the kids to hop off and knock at each door.
I do feel that this takes away from some of the magic of the holiday, but for the most part, my kids are still fully immersed in the festivities. The times have changed, unfortunately. I don’t know exactly what has changed it. Maybe it’s social media and the internet that have made people more aware of the real evil that surrounds them. Maybe it’s just social norms, and kids don’t have the same imaginations they once did. Maybe it’s a mixture of all these things and the answer is more complex than a simple one-sentence answer. To me, America just doesn’t feel as safe as it once did. I’m not certain. I do know that things have changed, but I still revere Halloween as my favorite holiday, because even when you grow up and the of Santa and the Easter Bunny wonder wears off, the magic of Halloween persists.
Kawash, S. (2011). Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating, 1930-1960. American Journal of Play, 4(2), 150–175.
History of The Holidays – Documentary. (n.d.). Www.youtube.com. Retrieved July 15, 2022, from https://youtu.be/suyr2iioiX8 (youtube, 2022)