Halloween is one of America’s beloved holidays. We buy decorations in July, we compete for the best costume, we gorge ourselves on candy and try to out-do each other for the scariest house décor. It is the second highest grossing holiday in the United States. We all know the traditions; children come out of the womb knowing how to trick-or-treat. But what is the origin of these national craze? Why do we still uphold these customs? How do other countries celebrate?
History of Halloween
This “spooktacular” holiday originated in Ireland as a Celtic festival called Samhain. The Celtic calendar started its New Year on November 1st, and October 31st symbolized the end of summer and harvesting. It was said to be the beginning of winter and time of the dead. Because of this, the Celtics believed the line between the world of the living and the dead was blurred on the night of the 31st. Spirits of dead relatives would cross back over accidentally, just for one night. The Celtic priests would light grand bonfires and offer sacrifices of grains and animals in order to appease the spirits. The spirits could sometimes be mischievous and destroy the crops of the farmers; the sacrifices were to prevent this and save their future source of income.
These traditions had a difficult time becoming established in the American colonies, as the Protestant church-goers were very rigid and refused to participate. However, when immigration increased, particularly for the Irish in the 1820-30s, they firmly rooted Halloween in American culture. Now, the holiday has had enough time to become an Americanized event.
Traditionally, trick-or-treating was an inexpensive way to bring the whole community together to celebrate this holiday. It was a time to have fun, dress up and act like a child again. Unfortunately, looting and vandalizing also became associated with Halloween. This was especially problematic during the Great Depression. Teenagers and even adults would assault people in the dark, vandalize homes and vehicles,and commit other acts of violence. So the community decided that if a house handed out candy, that family was not sabotaged. Thus, the saying “trick-or-treat.” This tradition died out during World War II, when sugar was rationed. It wasn’t until after the war ended that the celebration of Halloween and trick-or-treating made its comeback.
What about the rest of the world?
Mexico, Spain and Latin America: La Dia de Los Muertos
- They have a three day celebration.
- They believe the dead return to their earthly home for one night.
- They prepare an altar for the dead ones so they might find their way home. These altars are decorated with the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, candy and flowers.
- They also tidy up the deceased’s grave (trim weeds, cut grass, add fresh flowers, etc).
China: Teng Chieh
- Family members lay out food and water in front of deceased family members’ photographs.
- They light bonfires and lanterns to guide the dead home again.
- The priests practice a “boats of the law” tradition. They are constructed from paper and are burned on Halloween night. This is done for two reasons: to celebrate the dead ones and to release the “pretas” spirits. Pretas are the spirits of people who have died at sea or some other accident where their bodies were never buried.
France: Amusingly enough, France does not celebrate Halloween. They believe it’s too American. Even more amusing, the French did not know Halloween was a holiday until the late 1990’s. Oh, France.
So now you’re in the know! Go enjoy this splendidly creepy holiday however you see fit! Comment below to tell us your favorite Halloween traditions.