As October draws to an end and the chilly air of winter slowly starts to creep in, streets around the world are beginning to bustle with macabre decorations and lighted pumpkins. It is everyone’s favorite season of festivities, superstition, and loads of candy – Halloween is coming. Halloween is one of those few festive events that are celebrated world-wide. Wherever you live, and no matter your age, you will most likely have at least one Snickers bar during this season. Such is the popularity of Halloween, but how much do we really know about this sweet-toothed festival?
Halloween is thought to have originated from the Celtic edges of Britain, from an ancient pagan festival known as Samhain. During Samhain, which was celebrated from the sunset of October 31 until the sunset of November 1, it was believed that the dead returned to their homes as spirits. People would leave food on their doorsteps for the roaming spirits and wear masks around to disguise themselves as ghosts. In the 8th century, the Christian Church turned November 1 into All Saint’s Day to honor all saints and martyrs. Its eve became known as All Hallows’ Day — the name was eventually shortened to become Halloween.
The potato famine that hit Ireland in the 19th century sent a flood of English immigrants across the sea to America, and along with them Halloween. Though they have become quite Americanized and secular, the Halloween practices recognized today have their roots in traditions that were brought along at that time. For instance, take the Medieval British practices of ‘souling’ and ‘guising’. ‘Souling’ refers to the practice in which the poor would beg for food and receive ‘soul cakes’ in return for praying for the family’s dead relatives on All Soul’s Day. In ‘guising’, the young would dress up in costumes and accept offerings of food, money, etc. in exchange for performances. These practices were revived by immigrants and became trick-or-treating.
At first, Halloween in America was more about the tricks than the treats. But then the pranking started to get out of hand, even reaching vandalism, and thus the 1920s and 30s saw a movement to focus Halloween more on community and the young. By the 1950s, vandalism was successfully eliminated and Halloween had evolved into today’s kid-friendly form. Trick-or-treating was revived and continued to grow. Today, a quarter of the sweet industry’s annual revenue comes from Halloween candy sales and customers spend more than 7 million USD annually for the holiday in US alone, making it the second most commercial holiday surpassed only by Christmas.
Although trick-or-treating and costume parades are quite widespread, not all countries celebrate Halloween the same way the US does. In Mexico and other Spanish speaking countries, Halloween is known as “El Día de los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead) and lasts from October 31 to November 2. It is celebrated primarily in Mexico, where it is designated a public holiday. Mexicans believe the spirits of the dead return to visit their homes during this period. Thus, they tidy the graves and decorate their homes with candles, flowers, and sugar skulls called “cavaleras”. In many indigenous villages people create altars for the dead inside their homes and fill them with copious offerings of food. The Day of the Dead is the Mexican way of living alongside death; instead of looking at death morbidly, they consider it something worth commemorating. As they paint colorful skeletons and sing and dance for the dead, people learn to respect that there is a natural cycle to life and that death is not something to be feared. In this way, the Day of the Dead becomes a true celebration of life.
In Ireland, the supposed homeland of Halloween, celebrations are as festive as anywhere else. Adults and children alike dress up in costumes and gather to light bonfires and watch fireworks. In the city of Derry, the largest Halloween celebration of the island takes place in the form of a street carnival. Many games are played, such as “snap-apple”, in which an apple hung on a string is suspended from the ceiling as players attempt to take a bite from it. Treasure hunts, card games, and divination games are also commonly played.
Even outside Ireland, in other European countries that previously did not celebrate Halloween, the American style festivities are becoming progressively popular along with the increasing influence of American pop culture. Eastern countries of Asia have their own counterparts of Halloween to pay respect to the dead – such as the Korean Chuseok or the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival – but are also experiencing a spread of Western Halloween practices. The Halloween spirit is becoming further unified each year, making Halloween a more global and thus more exciting festival for all.