"Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity, life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition."
It's said that All Hallows' Eve is one of the nights when the veil between the worlds is thin - and whether you believe in such things or not, those roaming spirits probably believe in you, or at least acknowledge your existence, considering that it used to be their own. Even the air feels different on Halloween, autumn-crisp and bright. -Erin Morgenstern
History of Halloween
Halloween is thought to have originate with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween.
History of Traditions
The American Halloween tradition of "trick-or-treating" probably dates back to the early All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter. (1)
I believe - probably along with many others - that Halloween - similar to other holidays - has evolved into a consumer-based tradition. Stores are now created with the sole purpose of selling Halloween costumes and decorations, and regular supermarkets or pharmacies (Duane Reade, Walgreens, etc.) start selling Halloween decor in the beginning of September. Businessweek estimates $7 billion on Halloween spending this year (including decorations, costumes for adults, kids and dogs, and candy). In recent years there has been the creation of cat and dog Halloween costume contests and parades, such as the Annual Tompkins Square Park Halloween Dog Parade in New York City.
Candy corn, a hugely popular Halloween candy, is now sold in numerous different flavors: Pumpkin Spice Candy Corn, Chocolate Candy Corn, Autumn Candy Corn (what does that even mean?), Candy Corn with peanuts, Candy Corn with Cashews, etc. Because candy corn is usually sold only once a year, the craze is increased through suspense. One remembers the sweet taste of candy corn and cannot wait until it is Fall again so that they can buy an entire bag. I felt this way just this year. It had been more than three years since I last had candy corn; I was ecstatic! I told myself to wait until only a week before Halloween to buy a bag of candy corn, so that I wouldn’t spend all of my allowance on multiple bags for a month. Finally, on October 25th, I bought my first bag of candy corn. It took me a few minutes to find the right bag, because with all of the choices I had, I wasn’t sure what to buy. Unfortunately, Walgreens does not sell plain candy corn anymore (I don’t like chocolate but all of the bags had chocolate inside), and I settled for the bag of Autumn Candy Corn - a mixture with plain, chocolate, and pumpkin-shaped candy corn. When I returned to my dorm room, I opened the bag and ate every piece of candy corn that was not chocolate. In a matter of twenty minutes, my $1.39 bag of candy corn was devoured, and only a few minutes after that, my stomach slowly started to feel sick. After I scarfed down that bag of candy corn, I don’t think I can ever eat candy corn again. It tasted good when I was eating it, but that good feeling quickly disappeared.
ONE QUARTER OF ALL THE CANDY SOLD ANNUALLY IN THE U.S. IS PURCHASED FOR HALLOWEEN. (2)
It seems that now the only thing we are celebrating for Halloween is the profit the stores make from our spending, and our tummy aches.
Another evolution of Halloween would be the costumes available for children and adults. There are numerous arguments against costume evolution, many involving questions of sexism. Nowadays, there are two main categories for costumes: sexy or comical. It is difficult to find other choices when in any Halloween shop. When walking into a Halloween store with a friend, there was an entire basement reserved for the “Bachelorette Department” and “Sexy Costumes”. This was depressing and yet hilarious at the same time. I wondered not only how there could be an entire floor devoted to these types of costumes, but also why that bottom floor was packed full of women purchasing them.
Here are some articles that further delve into the arguments over Halloween costumes:
- Halloween: The most sexist children’s holiday?
- The Politics of Halloween Costumes
- How to Celebrate Halloween Without Being A Sexist
1 - "Halloween." History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://www.history.com/topics/halloween>.
2 - Glassman, Mark. "U.S. Halloween Spending and Consumer Sentiment." Businessweek.com. N.p., 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-24/correlations-u-dot-s-dot-halloween-spending-and-consumer-sentiment>.