Halloween is one of the most tradition-filled holidays on the calendar. Far from just a day for kids, within the last decade or so Halloween has gone mainstream. In 2011, Americans spent $6.86 billion on Halloween, which is a scary amount indeed.
Halloween means the evening before All Hallows Day (also known as All Saints’ Day), which is November 1. The roots of Halloween go all the back to Ireland’s Celtic tribes. For them, New Year’s Day was November 1, as was common in many New Year’s festivals, the night before, was a time when the spirits of everyone who died during the past year would rise up and wander the earth once more. Samhain, the Lord of Darkness (or Lord of the Dead) would judge these spirits. In some traditions, he decides whether a soul will continue as human or animal, and in others he decides which souls to drag down into the underworld. Either way, it is from this shredding of the veil between the dead world and the living that we get the tradition of dressing up like ghosts, devils, and other scary types.
Another version of why there are costumes on Halloween is that All Hallows’ Eve was a night in which churches would display the relics of saints. Most churches either didn’t have relics or couldn’t afford to purchase them, so they had parishioners dress up like the saints and parade about.
One of Halloween’s most prominent traditions is the Jack-O-Lantern. Like a lot of Halloween history, this one also comes from Ireland and is called the Legend of Jack. Jack was a stingy, mean man not above playing tricks on any and everyone. One day he tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree, but when the Devil did so, Jack carved a cross into the tree trunk, preventing the Devil from coming down. Before he would get rid of the cross, Jack made the Devil swear that he’d never claim Jack’s soul.
When Jack died he tried to enter heaven, but was denied entrance because of the miserable life he’d led. Then Jack tried to get into hell, but the Devil kept his word and refused to let him in. “Where will I go?” Jack asked. “Back where you came from,” said the Devil. To help light the way the Devil threw Jack a glowing coal from the fires of hell. He dropped it into a turnip that he had been eating and went back. Now Jack eternally wanders the earth with his glowing “jack-o-lantern.”
Trick or treating is another popular Halloween custom that again harkens back to pagan times. It was thought that the ghosts and spirits of the dead infested the houses of the living, so people would put out plenty of food. At the end of the meal, villagers in masks and costumes would lead the spirits away from the town.
Another version holds that trick-or-treating came from Ireland, and townspeople would arrange a gigantic feast for All Hallows’ Eve, and go door-to-door collecting contributions.
Halloween has also sparked different customs in various countries around the world. In Germany, for example, it is customary to put all knives away on Halloween so as to avoid harm both to, and from, the returning spirits. The Czechs place two chairs by the fireside for Halloween – one chair for each living family member and one for each family member’s spirit. Austrians leave bread, water, and a lighted lamp on a table before going to bed at night to help the returning spirits find their way back. In Hong Kong, Halloween is known as the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, and people burn pictures of fruit and/or money.
One interesting tradition – or non-tradition – is in France. There the holiday is viewed as something of an American marketing gimmick. It wasn’t celebrated in France at all until the mid-1990s, but the French people’s love of parties got the best of them and Halloween has gained a bit of a foothold. Still, November 1 – All Saints’ Day – is much more important in France, and it remains to be seen whether Halloween can ever reach that level.
So, for those who love Halloween, be glad you don’t live in France!
1. Celebrations, the Complete Book of American Holidays, by Robert J. Myers.
2. America Celebrates! By Hemmig Cohen and Tristram Potter Coffin