The sun begins to shine differently this time of year. It hangs lower in the sky and on clear days, the afternoon hues are sharper, brighter somehow. The mornings are cooler and the air is crisp. These are the days of multiple layers of cloths, because the sweater or jacket will be coming off by noon if the sun is out. In the evenings people begin lighting fireplaces for the first time of the season and the air in the valleys smell of wood smoke. The prevailing wind begins to change direction carrying with it the moisture soaked clouds from the warmer south. Windows in bedrooms might close for the first time in months and flannel sheets dug out from the back of closets are dusted off. There is an abundance of the color orange. Men head off into the woods to hunt and the salmon return to run the gauntlet of the river in hope of spawning another generation. Football is suddenly relevant again. But, perhaps the most recognizable sign that the seasons are changing is at the grocery store. No, it’s not the produce or the sudden abundance of gourd-like vegetables, or even the appearance of cardboard cutouts depicting sports hero related beer company propaganda. It’s the rows of shelves upon shelves overflowing with bags of candy in all its “bite-size” drool inducing glory. Finally, it’s the return of the single serving candy bags. So, how did Halloween become a holiday dedicated to the harvest of candy from willing neighbors, instead of a true harvest celebration? Read on.
Samhain (Sow-en) was a Celtic holiday, marking the end of the harvest and the end of summer. It was regarded as the "Celtic New Year,” and the day when the living and the dead, came together. In order to keep the mischievous spirits from damaging still un-harvested crops with early frosts or blights, Celtic priests, like Druids, would leave food and offer sacrifices to the many deities while dressed in costumes made of animal hides. Candles were placed into carved out squash, as lanterns, to guide the way home for good spirits. Massive bonfires would be lit to burn away the chaff from the harvested crops and in the process burn away all the bad from the previous year.
Gathering together with members of the community to set ablaze last year’s grievances is a tradition that survives in communities through out the country to this day. For example, every year in Crested Butte, Colorado around this time there is what’s called the “Burning of the Grump,” where all the gear (skis, climbing ropes, packs, boots, tents, etc.) involved in tragic accidents is thrown on a bonfire and burned away. It’s an all night party, to say the least.
The name Halloween is a variation of All-hallow-even or All-hallows-eve which is to say, literally, the evening before All Hallows Day or All Saints Day. Pope Gregory III moved the Christian feast of All Saints Day to November 1, from May 13 to better correspond with a number of pagan harvest festivals. The Romans were notorious for first “conquering” and then incorporating the better aspects of their “conquered” foe’s culture into their own. After encountering the Celts sometime around 40AD, the Romans adopted many of their festivals and brought many of the Celt’s religious celebrations home to Rome. The Church of Rome had decreed a holiday began at sunset the day before, which is why October 31, the eve of all Saint’s Day, was and is celebrated. Halloween is essentially, Christmas Eve and New Years Eve all thrown together as one big party for the Pagans.
In America, the old Celtic tradition of hollowing out various squashes, lighting a candle and placing it inside continues. Using the pumpkin became the gourd of choice in America around the 1850’s. Colonial America doesn’t have much in the historical record regarding celebrations, perhaps due to the strict adherence to Puritan religious beliefs and just general practicalities. However, there are a few accounts of Halloween celebrations mixing with Native American harvest celebrations reminiscent of the Celtic traditions in Britain.
Irish and Scottish immigrants helped shape Halloween into the widely celebrated event we recognize today. Scottish immigrants celebrated with fireworks. The telling of ghost stories, playing games like bobbing for apples, and making mischief were all born out of the Scottish tradition. Today, if one has a Scottish grandmother, she might remember Dooking, or the act of holding a knife or fork between the teeth and then dropping it onto an apple. The winner of the game is the one who’s apple doesn’t tip over after it is stuck with the cutlery.
Likewise, if one had an Irish grandmother he might have had his fortunes read in the rings of his cup and saucer in a game called, Puicini. Another popular way to scare the Grandkids, was to tell the young women sit in a darkened room and gaze into a mirror. They were then told the face of their future husband would appear. If a skull appeared, however, the girl would be dead before her 18th birthday.
So, what’s the deal with all this candy? Around 1900 the focus of Halloween was completely divorced from All Saint’s Day in popular culture and swung back to more of a harvest celebration involving practical jokes and revelry. An old English term dating back to the Middle-ages, "Guising," referred to the poor asking for food or money. At Halloween children then adopted the practice of guising or wearing a disguise, and dressing up in costumes. In the 1900’s children rarely went door to door asking for food or money during Halloween, due in part to poor infrastructure like no sidewalks, poor drainage, unpaved streets and poor lighting. It was more the fashion to go to a large party where everyone, kids included would be dressed up and wearing costumes. Less emphasis was placed on fear and superstition in favor of a more light-hearted celebration.
By its very nature Halloween brings out the darker aspects of the human experience. Death, ghosts, superstition all drum up some deeply rooted emotional responses. Despite attempts by good-natured people to lighten the tone of Halloween, the dark side will always persist and pranks and mischief prevail. In the 1920s and 1930s, vandalism, property damage even physical assaults were quite common. The KKK used the fear-based aspects of Halloween to terrorize minorities and set fires. Because of rampant vandalism and unsocial behavior, schools and community organizations like the Boy Scouts organized safe events like school carnivals and local neighborhood “trick or treat” outings for children. Believe it or not, in the mid 1920’s, the concept of “Trick or Treat” was seen by some, even leaders in the community, as a form of extortion leading to the ever-popular “egging” of those who didn’t participate in the handing out of treats. "Trick or Treat" first appeared in print in 1934 when a Portland, Oregon newspaper ran an article about how Halloween pranks kept local police officers on their toes. What we recognize today as kids dressing up and “Trick or Treating,” didn’t really catch on until the mid to late 1940’s and early 50’s with the advent of another new concept, the suburbs.
Anoka, Minnesota considers itself to be the "Halloween Capital of the World," a title it wrestles back and forth with Salem Massachusetts, home to the famous Salem Witch Trials. In 1920, Anoka town leaders organized a parade and promised popcorn, peanuts and candy to any children who participated in the parade and promised not to participate in pranks like “cow tipping” and other like-minded shenanigans. The parade took place in the evening and was followed by a bonfire in the town square. The event grew and has been held every year since, with the exception of 1942 and 1943 due to World War II. Anoka today holds an elaborate Halloween festival complete with a parade, carnival, and not only costume contests but, house decorating contests as well.
It’s a well-known fact, the popularity of Halloween increases every year. Today it is America's second largest commercial holiday next to Christmas, generating nearly $7 billion in revenue from the little country pumpkin patch up above Allegany to the CEO of Hershey’s. Weather it’s visiting haunted attractions, like the “Haunted Halls” at Bandon’s High School, or trick or treating with the kids at the Mall in Coos Bay, or taking the family to spend the night in a haunted hotel like the Stanley in Estes Park, or hosting a scary movie marathon, even building a giant French catapult called a “Trebouche” to hurl pumpkins hundreds of feet through the air, the simple fact remains that Halloween is FUN and it’s here to stay. Big Business will see to that.