Happy Halloween! “Trick or treat, smell my feet!” Double layered pillowcases for candy collection, crisp autumn air with leaves at your feet, and the sticky, sweet taste of caramel apples. The sounds, sights, smells and tastes of Halloween are permanently etched in our memories.
The Spooky Evolution of Halloween
Halloween didn’t need social media to go viral. It’s been going viral for centuries, traveling from country to country, culture to culture, era to era. And, like the most mystical ghost, it keeps changing shape along the way.
The Ghosts of Halloween Past
Much of what we now call Halloween grew out of Samhain, an ancient festival of the Celts. They believed the door of the underworld opened on this day, releasing the spirits of the dead, who roamed the earth on Samhain Night.
Although Samhain was a pagan festival, Christian missionaries incorporated its traditions into what became known in various countries as the celebration of All Saints’ Eve, Allhalloween, or All Hallow’s Eve. In Gaelic, “eve” becomes “e’en,” which explains the genesis of “Halloween.” Occurring on October 31, All Hallow’s Eve ushers in All Hallows’ Day, a Christian feast commemorating saints (hallows), martyrs, and loved ones.
Apparently, the need for such a celebration is universal. Japan honors the deceased with the Bon Festival, a Buddhist holiday involving outdoor festivals and visits to the graves of loved ones. In China, the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is a time to ward off evil spirits with gifts. Ghost stories date back to ancient Rome, while poltergeists first “appeared” during the Middle Ages in Germany. And to this day, Romanians on Halloween recall the legend of Dracula, who is said to haunt their towns.
Halloween Discovers America, and Vice Versa
Scottish and Irish immigrants brought their Samhain heritage to America, and a new land gave it a new, distinctively American turn. Halloween was not widely observed here until the mid-19th century. Even then, it surfaced primarily in the immigrant communities. But with the growth of mass media and transcontinental travel, the holiday reached critical mass by the early 1900s. Thanks to the American “melting pot,” Halloween celebrations became customary coast to coast.
Although the holiday became customary, the specific customs of the holiday were all over the map. In the 1800s, in many parts of the country, October 31 was primarily a day of mischief, aka “tricks” — throwing eggs at houses, knocking over outhouses, letting livestock loose. During the Depression, as the vandalism became increasingly dangerous and mean-spirited, parents and other concerned citizens began promoting Halloween candy and costumes as a way to make the holiday safer for kids.
This tactic was effective but had an unintended result: The pranks moved to October 30, which different communities variously labeled Cabbage Night, Mischief Night, Devil’s Night, or Devil’s Eye. In some urban neighborhoods, children prowled the neighborhood for treats on two consecutive nights, with October 30 dubbed Beggars’ Night.
On Halloween We Carve… Turnips?!!
Well, we might have, if Americans hadn’t replaced the traditional turnip with the pumpkin. Europeans used to carve turnips, potatoes, and beets to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve.
Originally, carvers used these items to create jack-o’-lanterns that fended off evil spirits and lit the way. Irish legend has it that the jack-o’-lantern name derives from a boy named Stingy Jack. According to the legend, Jack trapped the Devil inside a turnip, then released the Devil in exchange for a promise that his soul would never be sent to hell. But when Jack died, he wasn’t allowed in heaven either. Instead, he was sentenced to remain on earth eternally, and walked the land with only a turnip, in which he placed a burning coal for light.
Americans remembered Jack by carving his face into “jack-o’-lanterns.” Parents told their children that the jack-o’-lantern would scare Jack away by tricking him into thinking it contained the Devil. The switch from turnips to pumpkins probably happened because pumpkins are larger and easier to carve than turnips — not to mention the fact that pumpkin pie makes a tastier traditional holiday dessert than turnip pie!
In 2005, Larry Checkon grew a pumpkin that weighed in at 1,469 pounds. On Halloween of that year, it became the world’s largest jack-o’-lantern when Scott Cully carved it in Northern Cambria, Pennsylvania.
Trick-or-Treating: Formerly Souling, Mumming, and Guising
The roots of trick-or-treating extend back many centuries to Europe. In England, “souling” involved individuals, usually of limited means, begging the wealthy for soul cakes. In exchange, the”soulers” would pray for the givers and their friends. Scotland and Ireland folks celebrated with a practice called “mumming.” It consisted of merrymakers who would dress up in masks and costumes and go house-to-house singing songs or reciting poems in exchange for food. By the 19th century, it had morphed into “guising”, with costumed children carrying hollowed-out turnips and visiting homes to seek rewards of cake, fruit, and coins.
Guising made its way to North America by the early 20th century. In German-American neighborhoods, guising took the form of a tradition known as “belsnicking.” Children wearing costumes would call on neighbors to see if adults could guess their identities. If no one guessed correctly, the child received a treat. In 1927, the earliest use of the term “trick or treat” appeared in North America. Since then, trick-or-treating has become firmly established as a core component of the Halloween celebration.
As trick-or-treating matured, neighborhoods adopted various norms. Homes that welcomed trick or treaters would turn their front light on at sundown, turn it off around 9 p.m.. Or, turn it off early enough to discourage rowdy teenagers from ringing the doorbell. Homes would place a pumpkin by the front door — multiple pumpkins in the more upscale neighborhoods. By Halloween, those pumpkins would morph into creatively carved jack-o’-lanterns.
Happy Halloween Greetings
In years gone by, kids went out in groups and were less likely to be accompanied by parents. While “Happy Halloween” might be what adults write on greeting cards for this holiday, children take a different approach when trick-or-treating. Kids might greet you at your front door with,
Trick or treat
Give me something good to eat
If you don’t care, I don’t care
I’ll pull down your underwear.
A shorter, less threatening version also became popular:
Trick or treat
Money or eat.
In today’s era of shortened attention spans and political correctness, the greeting is more commonly reduced to the bare bones:
Trick or treat
With the present concern for child safety, parents nowadays generally accompany their children. And with heightened awareness of the relationship between candy and cavities, parents limit candy consumption more than in “the good old days.” Kids can still play with their stash of goodies and trade them with their friends (“I’ll give you two Butterfingers for a Milky Way”). But leftover candy — at the homes of both the givers and the receivers — is often brought to work and shared with co-workers on the Monday after Halloween.
Of course, trick-or-treating will continue to evolve. One newer incarnation is “trunk-or-treating.” In this ritual, cars tailgate in school or church parking lots on Halloween and motorists offer treats from the trunk of their car, which may be decorated with a theme appealing to kids. The relative safety and convenience of trunk-or-treating appeals to many parents.
The earliest costumes, in Celtic times, were designed to ward off evil spirits. The basic idea was to trick the ghosts into thinking you were one of them!
Today, the need to dress up when trick-or-treating is simple: No costume, no candy.
Adults love seeing little kids in costume — at some homes they takes pictures of trick or treaters at the door.
Kids enjoy the sense of “becoming” the character they’ve always loved. And those characters keep changing. It used to be ghosts, witches, and clowns. Then Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. Today you’re more likely to see the stars of the recent movie franchises: Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America. According to the National Retail Federation, action/superheroes are now the best-selling costumes.
What’s Up with Bobbing for Apples?
If you don’t see much connection between apples, romance, and Halloween, look a little closer. Traditionally harvested in October, apples have long been associated with Halloween activities and romance. Youths in Ireland and Britain would peel an apple in one long strip, then throw it over their shoulder. The peel would supposedly land in the shape of the first letter of the name of your future husband or wife.
When the Romans invaded Britain, they brought with them an ancient courting ritual that involved apple bobbing. In some versions of this game, the first person who bit into an apple would be the next to marry. The Roman’s apple bobbing merged with the Celtic’s Samhain activities, resulting in apple dunking in England (apple dooking in Scotland).
Although the romantic aspects of apple bobbing haven’t caught on in America, the activity remains a Halloween staple. So do apples in general. Since the 1950s, caramel or taffy apples have become a traditional Halloween treat.
Other Names for Halloween
Synonyms for this popular holiday include:
- Night of Witches.
- All Saints Eve.
- Allhallows Eve or sometimes spelled, All Hallows Eve.
- Feast of Saint Andrew.
- All Soul’s Day.
It’s hard to get too serious about Halloween, so most Halloween greetings take the form of jokes or riddles:
- Why did the schoolteacher knock out the teeth in a jack-o’-lantern? She wanted it to become really bright.
- What do you say in a postcard from a Halloween festival? Witch you were here.
- Why did the witch wear an orange cloak? She heard that orange is the new black.
For more Halloween humor, go to our bewitching Halloween Jokes. And if you like your jokes particularly “punny” – see these.
- People who go to bars on Halloween: Hallo-winos
- People who barbecue on Halloween: Hallo-wieners
- Kids who complain that they want more candy on Halloween: Hallo-whiners
You can find some better Halloween puns and memes here.
Boo! There’s No Escaping Halloween
It’s in our music. Consider the lyrics to the pop hit, “Spooky”:
Just like a ghost
You’ve been a-hauntin’ my dreams
So I’ll propose on Halloween
Love is kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you.
Of course, the biggest Halloween song is “Monster Mash.” In the week leading up to Halloween, 1962, it reached #1 on Billboard’s Top 100. Youths from coast to coast danced the Monster Mash. To paraphrase from the song, “It was a graveyard smash.” Check out these fun Halloween quotes.
1930s Halloween Hit
And countless children have felt a tingle of excitement when mom or dad sang them this durable ditty composed back in the 1930s:
Witches and goblins with jack-o’-lanterns bright
Creep through the town on a cold October night
You can hear the sounds of running feet when nothing an be seen
And the strangest things can happen on a … WILD HALLOWEEN!
Halloween is also in our movies. The first ten films in the Halloween franchise have grossed $366 million at the box office. And that doesn’t include the Halloween novels, comic books, merchandise, and video games.
And even though there’s no mention of Halloween in Washington Irving’s novel of the headless horseman, The Legend of Sleep Hollow, the holiday figures prominently in Disney’s animated classic version.
Halloween is embedded in our culture. It’s in the haunted houses — from the haunted mansion at Disney World to the Children’s Museum Haunted House in Indianapolis to the San Mateo Haunted House in California. It’s in the celebrations — from the New York Halloween Parade to the Starlight Parade in Portland, Oregon, to the largest Halloween parade in the world in Derry, Northern Ireland.
And Halloween is most definitely in our candy. Annual Halloween candy sales in America now total around $2.7 billion. While Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups currently tops the list, good old Halloween candy corn — once known as chicken feed — still ranks in the top 20. And let’s not forget those tiny candy pumpkins, which pop into your mouth as easily as popcorn.
A Frightfully Popular Holiday
In front of my local supermarket, they put out a huge display of porcelain jack-o’-lanterns for sale — in July! And people staring buying them — in July!
A Harris poll ranks Halloween as the third most popular holiday, behind Christmas and Thanksgiving. But in late October, ask any kid which holiday is on their mind. You know “witch” one it’s bound to be.
Art Novak is an Emmy-winning writer, novelist, and Professor Emeritus at Savannah College of Art and Design. artnovakauthor.com
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