Halloween — What does it mean?

Although Halloween in America today is celebrated as a secular holiday, its folklore and traditions are rooted in a number of religious customs from the Celts, the Catholic Church and northern European folklore that date back centuries. Here’s a brief description of its religious roots, how today’s tradition of trick-or-treating came to be and a look into the future of Halloween.

Halloween originated primarily from the Celtic holiday of Samhain, pronounced “Sahwen,” before the common era in much of Europe. It was celebrated on Nov. 1 of the Celtic calender, which was the first day of the new year. In addition to celebrating the new year and the end of the harvest season, Samhain was thought to bring out the souls of those who died in the previous year.

These drifting souls would come out in order to travel and find their dwelling place in the land of the dead. People would offer the souls fruits and vegetables to appease them, to aid them in their journeys and to honor them. Bonfires were lit to make sure that these souls-in-transit would not stay in the earthly realm.

The supernatural elements of the holiday didn’t sit well with the Church of Rome. The Church believed that any supernatural presence that was felt by the Celts was a manifestation of the Christian devil and that these wandering souls were evil and there to do deliberate harm.

From these ideas the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day, which later became All Hallows Eve, was implemented on Nov. 2, 601, by the Church officials to counteract and replace Samhain. The idea was to have a holiday to pray for the souls of the dead. The idea wasn’t very popular, so the traditional Celtic holiday overruled and generally gave birth to what we today know as Halloween.

The rituals of Halloween also have a diverse origin.

Trick-or-treating can be traced back to an act called mumming, which consists of getting dressed up in costumes and masks while parading around town entertaining the neighborhood and asking for food and drink in return. It is similar to Christmas caroling, which consisted of singing songs outside people’s houses and later receiving food and drink from them as a thank you. Mumming still occurs in Newfoundland during Christmas and has a history in many holidays from all over the world.

Today, trick-or-treating can be seen as a watered-down version of mumming or the latest version of it, called “guising,” in Europe, which consists of disguising oneself and roaming the streets. Youngsters “perform” essentially by getting dressed up and saying “trick-or-treat!” Their reward – or demand – is, of course, candy.

This phenomenon became widespread in the United States in the 1950s, but there are accounts of it occurring in the 1930s. Prior to trick-or-treating, some children would wear spooky homemade costumes, prance around the neighborhood carrying candlelit jack-o-lanterns and stop at people’s houses to attempt to scare them by appearing in the window or ringing their doorbells.

This eventually turned into demanding candy, “treating,” or getting threatened, or “tricked.” This ritual has become so widely accepted that the tricking and treating has become a harmless and encouraged exchange between adults and kids.

In some ways, “tricking” has evolved and become its own phenomenon. Many older children choose to toilet-paper or egg houses as an alternative to tricking in order to seek candy. There is even a college spin on it called “trick-or-drinking.”

Halloween continues to evolve. It has spawned a number of concert festivals, amusement park festivities and movies. For many Americans, it is an excuse to party, watch scary movies and spend money.

According to the book The Sacred Santa by USF religious studies professor Dell DeChant, billions of dollars are spent each year on Halloween paraphernalia – so much that Christmas shopping is the only thing to exceed its revenue.

Like with many American traditions, consumerism seems to have taken over its essence.

Source: All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life, by Jack Santino.