A Haunting History

Once upon a midday dream, while we pondered Halloween,
Over many a quaint and curious website of digital lore,
While we searched, nearly napping, on the keyboard, always tapping,
And then some one gently rapping, dropping beats and rhymes galore.
“‘Stop this poetic bore,” twas muttered, “and write your journalist’s chore-
Only prose, and nothing more!”

Edgar Allan Poe’s classic, The Raven, is the right kind of story to set the mood for the coming holiday, especially if read by Homer Simpson. -It is unfortunate that our boss threw a flaming jack-o-lantern through the idea of doing an entire article in that style- However, old Edgar was not the first nor the last to give us the creeps, because being scared is part of being human. It gets our adrenaline pumping and helps us feel alive. Heck we have a whole holiday dedicated to it, but the origins of Halloween are not as straightforward or even as scary as you might think.

A Nightmare Before Christ
Most historians seem to agree that the origins of modern day Halloween can be traced back to the festival of Samhain, pronounced “sah-win”. This pre-Christian pagan ritual took place on November 1st in Celtic tribes and communities. Literally translated, the Gaelic word means: “Summer’s end.” The full traditions and practices of the festival are not fully detailed in any written historic records, but we do know a few things about the ancient autumnal holiday. It was communal, and it was a time when the Celtic people gathered to commemorate the end of summer and -like Ned Stark- prepare for the coming winter. The ancient Irish and Scottish literally celebrated it like summer’s funeral.

To them winter was a time when the land was dead. Samhain was the beginning of that death. So to the ancient Celts the night before, October 31st, was a time when the veil between life and death was at its thinnest, as the world transitioned from one state to the next. It was believed that during the night ghosts and spirits would walk the world. The people left out offerings for those spirits on their doorsteps. If anyone stepped outside their door they had to go masked, disguised a ghost so that none of the real ghosts would recognize them or make fun of them, presumably. Samhain also celebrated by bonfires and other activities.

The Catholic church at the time was always in the game of supplanting pagan holidays with their own -which is why Christmas takes place in December and not the spring. So under the direction of Pope Gregory III the church declared that November 1st was All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day. That meant October 31st became All Saints Eve, or more popularly known as All Hallows Eve. Because the human tongue is lazier than Garfield on a Monday, over time we shortened the name -like OMG, what do you mean? WTF. So the festival became known as Hallowe’en. The holiday was a hit throughout all of England and Ireland, but it would take a while to make its way to the New World.

Frankenstein’s Holiday
The original colonies were founded by the stoically overworked Puritans, who weren’t really into all this pagan nonsense about ghosts and spirits. Yet, as more and more people came over to the colonies the holiday become celebrated sporadically, but only through plays, dancing, or fortune telling. It wasn’t until the late 19th century when the potato famine drove thousands of Irish immigrants to the shores of the United States that the holiday really began to take hold in American culture.

The Irish, longing for the traditions of home, celebrated Halloween as a way of reconnecting with their Celtic roots. Traditions became modified in the melting pot of America and changed for practicality sake. For example, a lot of Halloween symbols we know today, such as spiders, black cats, and bats came from American ideas about witches and pagans. The Celtic bonfires of old became contained to single candles within pumpkins. In fact, the carving of jack-o-lanterns also changed. In Ireland people carved potatoes or turnips. Pumpkins don’t exist in the British Isles, but thanks to the Pilgrims they are the squash of choice for the American fall season -just ask any barista at Starbucks.

The figure of Jack O’Lantern himself also entered into American lore and become a big part of the holiday, mostly through retold tales, superstitions, and Tim Burton movies. As the story goes, a figure named Stingy Jack tricked the devil several times and made him promise not to claim his soul for hell after he died. However, old Lucifer got the last laugh, because Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven and the devil wouldn’t take him to hell so he was banished to wander the Earth. The Irish began referring to the figure as Jack of the Lanterns, and -again because the human tongue is an orange lasagna loving cat- it became Jack O’Lantern. The Irish and Scottish created turnip jack-o-lanterns to put in their windows on All Hallows Eve in order to scare away Stingy Jack  from entering their house, and rifling through their silverware drawer.

Trick or treating became a combination of pagan and Catholic traditions. “Guising” or “souling,” was where people would go around on All Souls Day, on November 2nd, from house to house offering to pray for the residences’ deceased loved ones. In exchange the homeowners would offer food or bread. However, for the Irish immigrant in the 19th century trick or treating was a lot more about the “tricking” than the “treating.” Quite frankly, we can understand that, we’ve seen Gangs of New York. If you were treated the way many Irish immigrants were treated you would probably want to egg a few houses too. Still Irish hi-jinks can only last for so long before the 1% wants in on the show, and that’s exactly what happened.

The Great Gatsby Pumpkin
It all started back in the roaring 20’s when Halloween parties became all the rage in high society. People with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt would dress up for a night of debauchery -which we can only assume included fast cars, loads of booze, and the secretly tortured soul of a a young millionaire just longing to be loved by a single woman. Unfortunately, on the lower rent side the cities, Halloween vandalism and property damage became a real problem. Cities like Los Angeles had to hire thousands of extra cops just to try and catch holiday pranksters. The situation only got more dire during World War II when Halloween tricks were no longer seen as kids being kids. Because of the scarcity of wartime resources, the property damage became known as an un-American affront to the war effort.

Towns did almost everything they could to downplay and discourage Halloween. Truman even tried declaring October 31st to be “Youth Honor Day,” but it didn’t fly with Congress -because even back then Congress was still Congress. Towns literally abolished the holiday, and national pleas were made to keep kids home on Halloween. Cities handed out free movie tickets, donuts, popcorn, and anything they could think of to keep kids from engaging in pranks, but it didn’t work. Kids still soaped windows, let air out of tires, rang doorbells at all hours of the night, and engaged in pretty much any classic prank you can think of and more. Even after the war ended and America was ready to return to festivities, Halloween still took a while to move nuisance to celebration.

In the late 1940’s the media and local governments decided to try and change Halloween by putting more emphasis on the “treat” instead of the “tricks.” However, many residents were still appalled at the fact that kids now came begging for candy or money. There were even reports of hostile residents, with one woman in Miami in 1950 handing out red-hot coins to children -because even back then Florida was still Florida. Police in North Carolina tried handing out 5,000 packages of cookies to kids to dissuade them from knocking on homeowner’s doors. However, those early attitudes would soon change thanks -in no small part- to a massive advertising campaign by the Mars Candy Company and other corporate outlets including television and cartoons. By the late 1950’s Halloween was no longer seen as kids begging, but as a fun holiday that every child deserved to take part in.

The Treehouse of Hornswoggling
By 1958 Halloween was a booming industry, quite literally. The baby boomers were growing and the new middle class -with their new disposable income- embraced the holiday. Parents started spending big bucks on candy, costumes, and parties. Food companies did not fail to notice the growing popularity of trick or treating and the potential it had for profits. Comapnies like Borden, National Biscuit Company, and even Philip Morris –smoke– began capitalizing on the new popular holiday. Companies made an estimated $300 million dollars on Halloween in 1965. It is a trend that has only been growing since, and is showing no signs of stopping.

Currently, Halloween is the second-most commercially profitable holiday behind Christmas. Americans spend an estimated $6 billion dollars each year including decorations, costumes, and candy. In fact, the candy industry rakes in an average of $2 billion alone during October. That is roughly 90 million pounds of chocolate. Somewhere along the line America made the transition from a quaint Irish tradition to a corporate money printing powerhouse, but that may not all be a bad thing. The continual growth and investment has assured that the holiday remains alive and vibrant in American culture. In fact, thanks to popular media and the exportation of American culture, the celebration of All Hallows Eve around the world -including in Ireland and Scotland- has become much more inline with American commercialized traditions than the older Celtic ones. In essence, it has become a uniquely American holiday.

The Millennial generation is going even further with Halloween and in recent years have raised it back to a holiday that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children. We nerds have never been shy about dressing up and acting like Jedi or Mutant Turtles or kids in general, so maybe it is not surprise that Halloween enjoys even more popularity among adults now than it did back in the 50’s or even in the 20’s. After all, we grew up enjoying this scary, spooky, and fiscally profitable holiday. It is only natural that we would want to keep celebrating it regardless of age. Maybe that is why it looks like Halloween may only be stopped, nevermore.


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