Ghosts, witches, and vampires looked out at us from the shelves littered with candy and pumpkins. The entire store appeared orange and covered in spider webs. It was not difficult to empathize with the confused expressions on our IELC international guests’ faces as they took in the sight of modern Halloween in America. However, when one of the students turned to me for an explanation of why all of this “stuff” was here, I found myself just as lost. When I replied that the decorations were for Halloween, she appeared to be no less puzzled and asked me what Halloween was.
After thinking through why she was so befuddled, I began to see that the significance of this holiday might not seem obvious at first. Why do we carve pumpkins and hunt for candy wearing costumes at the end of each October? I was embarrassed to respond to the question with a feeble explanation about some long-standing tradition involving ghosts and mumbling the words “All Hallows Eve” before trailing off in self-disappointment.
After asking at least 20 Collegiate students if they knew why we celebrated Halloween, I found that not one of them could tell me the reason either. Among the few responses I received, I heard a “dead people,” which sounded more like a question than a response, a “dead people and candy,” and a “something to do with All Soul’s Day?” Needless to say, I felt that it was time someone decided to find an answer.
So, I began to research the holiday and was pleased to discover that All Hallows Eve wasn’t something I had simply conjured up in my head. However, I was also displeased to see that there was much more I had not mentioned about Halloween’s origin besides one of its many names. Through further investigation, I learned that the holiday originates from a Celtic tradition existing 2000 years ago known as Samhain. This holiday, celebrated on November 1, was believed to be the bridge between harvest season and winter as well as the living and the dead. It was on the eve of Samhain that the dead would return as ghosts, prompting the living to leave food and wine on their porches to keep the ghosts away, or to wear masks that disguised them as other ghosts. When Samhain was named All Saints or All Hallows’ day, October 31 became All Hallows’ Eve and later, Halloween. The Medieval era was responsible for the precursor of trick-or-treating: a tradition known as guising, where children dressed up and collected food, wine, and money in exchange for singing, reading poetry, and telling jokes.
Over the years, Halloween has made an unfortunate transformation, similar to other holidays, away from tradition and towards commercialism. Every year, television exploits these celebrations for holiday specials and stores begin stocking up on decorations earlier and earlier. What separates Halloween from other holidays that share this situation is the fact that we make little effort to preserve the cultural and historical significance of October 31. No matter how modern Thanksgiving and Christmas might be, we will still hold Christmas Pageants and learn about Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock every year to remind us of what we are celebrating.
The topic of what Halloween is really about was recently brought to the headlines when a school in Milford, Connecticut canceled all festivities connected to the holiday. The school’s principal described the reasoning behind the decision, saying that this measure “arose out of numerous incidents of children being excluded from activities due to religion, cultural beliefs, etc.” The school was explicit in announcing a ban on the Halloween parade and tradition of wearing costumes to school, as well as any Halloween-themed classroom activities. Many of the school’s parents protested this measure with a petition that stated, “These are our American customs and traditions and we should not have to give them up because others find them offensive!” Although many do not associate religion with this holiday, the fact that it originated in Europe’s pre-Christian pagan society makes members of many religions hesitant to celebrate Halloween.
Part of the disenchantment that comes with growing older is learning that things like Halloween are not quite as simple as they have always seemed to be. What used to mean a night of trick-or-treating dressed in a costume has come to be something different entirely. Halloween passes quietly by in the Upper School, and the closest I have come to trick-or-treating in the last few years has been handing out candy. Every other costume is labeled as “sexy” now, and people are forgetting what it is we are actually celebrating. Halloween may seem bleak in this light, but wouldn’t it be different if the holiday meant more than just trick-or-treating? The cultural significance of Thanksgiving and Christmas have protected these holidays from the sad fate of growing up. Maybe if Halloween had the same significance, I would have been able to explain why we celebrate it.
Cover photo: Abóbora Menina via Getty Images