(Da'Shaunae Marisa / The New York TImes)

October 30, 2020

The Past, Present and Future of Halloween

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Normally around this time of year, Americans would be gearing up for a night of chaperoning younger siblings around town, eating excessive amounts of chocolate and buying out the clearance candy from CVS on November 1st. I don’t really have to point out why things are a bit different this year. 

The night of October 31, 2020 will be one filled with college students sitting pathetically in their rooms, accompanied only by a pile of empty candy wrappers and too much free time. As such, take a moment with me to remember better times: Look at how Halloween developed into the modern holiday we know and love, and catch a glimpse into what it may be like in years to come. 

Between all of the holidays taking place around October 31 — El día de muertos, Halloween, All Souls Day —  it can get confusing to trace down where one holiday ends and the other begins. Though all three of these holidays have interconnected roots, most scholars agree that Halloween’s past is connected to a combination of ancient Celtic and Christian traditions. 

More than 2,000 years ago, when the Celts lived in modern day Ireland, the feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-win) marked the end of the harvest season as the community began preparations for the coming winter months. The symbolic “death” of a season and the reaping of crops prompted feasts and celebration, but also indicated that the space between the dead and the living was thinner than ever. According to Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers, Samhain “was a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad.” In response, the Irish created bonfires “and invoked the help of the gods through animal and perhaps even human sacrifice.” 

Human souls also walked the streets during Samhain, forcing the living to adapt. To confuse any malicious spirits wandering in the night, travelers donned masks and carried lanterns made of turnips to light their way. Often, these lanterns were carved with scary faces to ward off the ghosts, as well. Sound familiar? 

Roman conquest and the imposition of Christianity attempted to eradicate the supernatural and pagan elements of the Samhain festival, replacing them with the Christian-friendly All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day, as it is more commonly known as now). It quickly became clear, however, that something was missing. An integral part of Samhaim’s allure was that it gave the townspeople a chance to “blow off steam” after a difficult harvest, and they were unlikely to give up this tradition very easily. J. Rhett Rushing points out in “Origins and Celebrations of El Día de los Muertos” that “Samhain had allowed for a period of ritualized misbehavior and a suspension of the normal rules governing everyday life.” In response, many turned to the night before All Hallows Day as a night to partake in communal mischief. All Hallows Eve, also known as Halloween, was born. 

The next day, on All Hallows Day, it became common practice in England for poor families to go “souling”; this practice consisted of visiting wealthy households and asking for “soul cakes,” a sweet pastry, in exchange for prayers for the wealthy family’s deceased loved ones. Eventually, mostly children took up this task and began asking for other goods like food, money and ale. Back in Scotland and Ireland, celebrants started similar traditions of “guising,” or dressing up to stop by multiple households and accept gifts. Instead of prayer, these ancient trick-or-treaters offered to sing songs, tell jokes or perform “tricks.” 

Though these are some pretty strong theories as to how Halloween started, how did it travel into the United States to become the candy-filled phenomenon that we know today? In the mid nineteenth century, an influx of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States to escape a deadly famine. As Irish and Scottish communities grew, so did their influence, and souling and guising started to flourish in the United States. During America’s post World War II economic boom, families readily gave out toys, homemade cakes, cookies, coins and fruit to the rising amounts of trick-or-treaters looking for fun. Candy companies were quick to pick up on this new market, and began advertising pre-packaged candy to be given out on Halloween in the 1950s. The candies’ cheap price, accessibility and small packaging made it perfect for easy distribution; by the 1970s, commercially produced candy had almost completely replaced any other treat and became a ubiquitous part of the American trick-or-treating experience. 

Halloween as we experience it, however, is not universal. Though popular in Canada, England, Ireland and a handful of other countries, trick-or-treating is a foreign concept to many. In Australia, where trick-or-treating has largely been criticized as having little relevance to Australian culture, the practice has nonetheless been rising in recent years. Many families in favor of trick-or-treating leave balloons on their mailboxes or front doors to indicate that visitors are welcome. The Dominican Republic is similarly divided. In larger Dominican cities where occupants regularly travel to-and-from America, Halloween customs are growing in popularity every year. Meanwhile, many of the Dominican Republic’s rural and religious towns oppose Halloween, as it can conflict with their beliefs. 

In the coming years, I imagine that Halloween will continue to spread throughout the world and evolve to fit into a multitude of cultures. With so much change happening year-to-year, it’s impossible to say how Halloween will look one hundred years from now. How will America’s ever-growing immigrant populations bring fresh, new twists to our celebrations? Our American Halloween is just one manifestation of what could be an incredibly varied holiday; for now, we can only look forward to seeing how other countries will borrow our customs and adapt them into something new and beautiful. 

Amelia Clute is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at aclute@cornell.edu.