Halloween history mystical, spiritual
The candy-obsessed, macabre revelry of today’s Halloween doesn’t much resemble its ancient roots. A tradition imported by Irish immigrants, Samhain (which sounds like “sow-ween” and means summer’s end) was the Celtic new year. An important seasonal transition after October’s harvest, Samhain was a mystical time celebrated in a somewhat happier, more family oriented style.
Ghosts. Maybe it wasn’t a fright fest, but it certainly was spiritual. The shift from fall to winter was considered mystical — a holy moment on the cusp of an old year made new. The Celts believed this was when the living could literally connect with their ancestors. Of course, an open door meant some malevolent spirits might also slip through, so there was a trepidatious element, too.
Costumes. The dead are only as nice as they were in life, so Celts sometimes dressed up as souls, donned masks or wore the hides of animals to scare away any undesirables. According to Smithsonian Magazine and History.com, the church later modified that by encouraging folks to dress up as saints (the church also changed the name to All Saints Eve or Hallows Eve, ergo Hallowe’en – a hallowed or holy evening).
Today, superheroes and princesses remain children’s favorites, according to the National Retail Federation.
Magic and romance. The natural mysticism of this time of year also lent itself to prediction. The ancients believed the size of the next harvest or identities of future spouses could be divined on this night.
Jack-o'-lantern. Beyond dressing up, Celts and Scots carried hollowed out, candle-lit turnips to scare off unwanted spirits.
Or was it to light their way?
An 18th century Irish folk tale describes Stingy Jack, a disreputable miser who was spared an eternity down below by tricking the devil on All Hallows' Eve. Jack wasn’t good enough to enter heaven, so his spirit wanders in limbo. On All Hallows' Eve you might see him carrying his “Jack-o’-lantern” through the darkness.
Trick or treat. In preceding centuries instead of treats, kids collected firewood for the giant Samhain community bonfire. By medieval times on All Souls Day (now All Saints Day), children went “souling” by knocking on doors to get soul cakes in exchange for prayers recited for the household’s dead relatives. Sometimes they performed antics too.
Modern trick-or-treating (really just treating) didn’t emerge in the U.S. until around the 1930s. It paused during WWII’s sugar rationing, then took off in the 1950s, spurred by the candy industry into the commercial spend-fest it is today.
Speaking of which, the NRF reported 68% of Americans participated in Halloween in 2019 (58 percent in 2020). Halloween spending keeps going up, reaching $8 billion in costumes, candy and decor in 2020. The most popular treats? Skittles and Reese’s.
Somehow we got away from the more mystical idea here. I say let’s ditch the candy and bring back the bonfire.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.