10 Things About Halloween

It’s October. Cue the Monster Mash and start (erroneously) bashing the taste of candy corn. Seriously, there are worse candies out there. Candy corn isn’t half bad in small doses, it’s just too sweet to binge.

ANYWAY, much like I have for other holidays throughout the year, I thought this month I’d scrape up some trivia about Halloween. Holidays all start somewhere, and many evolve over time. This could be important for the world you’re building in your writing.

But I’ve said this over and over in previous posts, so I’ll skip the lecture this time and jump right in. Here are 10 Things About Halloween.

  1. Most scholars and sources trace our modern observance of Halloween back to a Celtic practice 2,000 years ago. At the end of the harvest, the Celtics celebrated Samhain, a day in which they believed the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. They believed the dead could return to the land of the living on this one night. It was common to leave out offerings for loved ones, bonfires were lit through the night to guide the spirits, and sometimes disguises were worn to avoid confrontation with ill-intentioned spirits.
  2. While most scholars credit Samhain as the starting point for the evolution of what would eventually become Halloween, I find that it would be myopic and rude not to point out the holiday that would eventually become Dia de los Muertos had a similar origin with the Aztecs and other Nahua people groups another thousand years before the Celtics began observing Samhain. The Aztec believed that once a year, also in the fall, the veil or border between worlds grew thin and the dead could return. They also believed that when someone died and entered the land of the dead, they had to complete many different challenges to get through different “levels” of the land of the dead before actually getting to the final resting place. This process could take years and so leaving offerings for a loved one who you believed was still forging through the challenges as a way to encourage them was common. This belief would eventually blend with medieval Spanish beliefs and Catholic traditions to become what it is today, which IS NOT MEXICAN HALLOWEEN. It’s different. However, to not point out the similarities between the original celebrations and what they have become seems remiss.
  3. The Celtic tradition of Samhain would eventually get tangled up with the Roman tradition of Feralia when the Romans invaded, as they had a tendency to do. Feralia was a day, generally in October, the Romans set aside to remember and honor the dead.
  4. In 609 AD Pope Boniface IV established All Martyrs’ Day to celebrate those who died defending and spreading the Christian faith. However, All Martyrs’ Day was in May. Pope Gregory III chose to expand the holiday from all martyrs to all saints and moved the celebration to November 1st.
  5. Sometime around 1,000 AD the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day and the Celtic celebration of Samhain collided in the British Isles. Celebrations bled from one into the other. In Middle English, All Saints Day was said Alhalowmesse. Eventually, that became Hallowmas. The night before Hallowmas was Hallow’s Eve. Add several hundred more years, mix in different dialects, throw in a case of lazy mouth and we get “Halloween”.
  6. As Europeans, especially the British, colonized North America, they naturally brought their beliefs and celebrations with them. However, in most of the early Puritan settlements, Hallow’s Eve was strictly discouraged. It was, however, more commonly celebrated in the southern colonies (pretty much everything from southern Maryland down through Georgia). There is was further mixed with the celebrations and practices of several different Native American nations and became more of a harvest celebration/autumn festival.
  7. During the Irish Potato Famine in the late nineteenth century, Irish immigrants brought over their Halloween traditions and they quickly spread throughout the nation. These traditions included souling, guising, and innocent pranks. Souling was the practice that had the poor knocking on doors of their more affluent neighbors and offering to pray for the souls of their loved ones in exchange for loaves of bread. Guising was the act of wearing a mask and going door to door asking for food or coin in exchange for singing, dancing, recitations of poetry, or other performances.
  8. Over the years the innocent pranks portion of the tradition evolved into something more like vandalism. Where today we think of toilet papering houses and throwing eggs, at one point things got so bad that businesses began bribing the adolescents and young adults of the communities with candy or treats to keep them from damaging their stores. By the 1930s, it was pretty common for teenagers to go to both businesses and residences asking for these treat bribes. Anyone who refused got pranked. Trick or treat. Your choice. The definition of extortion.
  9. By the 1950s the holiday tradition had become more kid-friendly and the tricks a little less threatening. Now the adorable little princess or superhero at your door wasn’t actually threatening to bust out your windows or slash your tires, they were just asking for some free goodies using a mild threat they didn’t even understand. Ah, how precious.
  10. Today, Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations represent a more than $6 Billion industry with the vast majority of celebrants not knowing or caring why they wear masks (to hide from evil spirits), bob for apples (to celebrate a Roman goddess and to divine the future), or eat copious amounts of sweets (again, a history of extortion). They generally do know why they drink, they just might not know when to stop.

So there it is. The Celtics get all the credit, the Aztecs get overlooked, most Native American nations get left out of the story altogether, the Catholic church gets to name it, and lots of money gets spent. Halloween.

For kicks and giggles, I’ll end this post with a funny family anecdote. When I was very young, we lived in a tiny town where the Halloween tradition dictated that the more popular you were in school, the more likely for someone to roll (or toilet paper) your house. My older siblings were quite popular, but our house never got rolled.

Why?

Because when my eldest sister first got old enough for her friends to try to roll the house, my dad hatched a plan. He dressed in all-black tactical gear and hid in the bushes in front of our house alongside our completely black German Shepherd and armed himself with a super soaker filled with gentian violet–a generally harmless substance that stains the skin purple. When the kids showed up in our yard, he and the dog leapt from their hiding spot, already terrifying the poor lot, and sprayed them all.

Y’all.

It takes a few days for that stuff to fade away.

The HOMECOMING QUEEN had to accept her crown that year with a not-quite-faded purple streak across her face. Her mother was LIVID.

Nobody EVER rolled our house.

Trick or Treat.