A recent conversation with some friends about potential Halloween costume ideas quickly turned into a discussion of how we celebrated the holiday growing up. One of my friends had the iconic house in the neighborhood where a single bowl of candy would be left on the porch for Trick-or-Treaters with a sign that read – PLEASE TAKE ONE PIECE. Another friend said that their parents would pass out king-sized candy bars, and therefore, my friend was easily the coolest kid in school for the first week of November.
As a college student, I hadn’t thought about the act of Trick-or-Treating in a while. As my friends were recounting their childhood, I couldn’t help but think how strange it is that we send children in costumes to random houses and have them ask for candy. Doesn’t that go against the idea of not accepting candy from strangers? After this brief period of reflection, I expressed my puzzlement. My friends agreed, but offered the idea that the holiday indeed had religious roots.
To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the religious background of Halloween, so I took a deep dive into the internet to get to the bottom of this seemingly odd holiday. I think my history professors would be proud, because I went beyond Wikipedia, and found a fantastic article from the Western States Folklore Society, entitled “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances.”
The WSFS’s article made clear that the path “from the saga literature of the early centuries of recorded history to children in masks trick-or-treating door-to-door is a long one.” It emphasized that it had “many intersections and forks and side roads and curves.” This I found to be incredibly true. I was ultimately pretty confused while reading the piece and became aware of the many influences on Halloween over hundreds of years.
Here’s what I concluded: Halloween’s first origins relate back to the Celtic holiday of Samhain, which was the New Year in the Celtic calendar. For the old Celts, there was a presence of spirits abound while the old year transitioned to a new one. The holiday also reminded them of the need to harvest food for the winter. There are incredible tales of setting out food and gifts to appease particular spirits. The custom of costume dressing was also already present in these early days.
All Saints Day, a Christian holiday on November 1st that marks the end of the church year and honors Christian saints, came about in around 600 AD. This holiday was also referred to as All Hallows. Medieval Christians believed on the night before All Hallows, there was the most powerful presence of spirits throughout the year. I even read about Wiccan influences on the holiday during America’s colonial times. Long story short, the holiday of Halloween has since been commercialized into costumes and candy that we know it by today.
As I’ve discovered through my research, religious ideas and customs play a big role for Halloween. This isn’t totally surprising though, as through our interfaith conversations with the CRGC, I’ve learned that religion is present in virtually every facet of our society and culture. Halloween is just another example how beliefs are intertwined with our humanity.