Praise be to Halloween! Our one night only, get-out-of-jail-free card, in which we can senselessly indulge in our own mystery and utter ridiculousness. Perhaps the most paradoxical time of the calendar year, Halloween is fraught with irony and strange implication. A break from conventional thought and practice, its customary observances miraculously cross boundaries of faith, race, language, age, gender and culture, embracing the kind of freedom we have always desired: to be who we are not, or to be exactly what we are, in a spectacular display of self-discovery and imagination. Favourite super heroes, comic book villains, legendary creatures and our most beloved celebrities, help to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Stepping outside the comfortable orbit of our lives, Halloween challenges us to rethink the concrete by ways of the abstract, within a framework of mockery and frivolity. However despite the fun and fancy of Halloween, many parents today view the macabre spectacle with cynicism, believing its traditional practices unfit and ultimately unsafe for our children. Gone are the days of giving away candied apples and home made treats, pillow-case-costumes and going door-to-door knocking on strangers houses for treats without parental chaperon.
If the question is whether or not Halloween remains relevant in 21st century society, the answer may very well be a resounding, yes. When taken into the context of reality, (which in itself is obscure, subjective, changing and arguably illusory), Halloween doesn’t seem all that kooky. Why not dress up in costumes depicting all manner of crazy? After all, Halloween may be one of the only openly discernible contemplations of mortality in Western society, a reflection of the berserk and unknown that has surrounded us for centuries. For children, Halloween helps to validate their imagination, giving value to their hopes, dreams and fears. But to truly understand the relevance of Halloween, particularly in a modern context, we have to take a careful look at its origins, its exercise and its evolution throughout history.
Although the academic world diverges slightly between several different schools of thought when it comes to the origin of Halloween, a culmination of historical observances in several different countries, across diverse cultures over time, may be the most plausible narrative to explain the modern day custom we observe today. For example, October 31st marks the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. This particular date connotes a special time in the liturgical year. Dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all those faithful departed believers, All Hallows’ Day is thematic of using comedy and ridicule to confront the power of death. Although the name, “Halloween” most certainly derives from a Christian source, as a mutation of the Scottish colloquial, “All Hallows’ Eve,” (which overtime evolved into Halloween), the academic world, however, is divided on the origin of the festival itself. Some concur that All Hallows’ Day borrowed its influence from Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots, (particularly as a Christianized version of the Gaelic Samhain). Others however, argue it originated independently. Folklorists have even detected its provenance in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, and in the festival of dead, called Parentalia. It is tenable to believe that all of these together formed our familiar, modern day observance of Halloween. The affects of Roman Britain, followed by the invasion of the Saxons and Normans, produced a kind of cultural alloy in ancient Britain, attributing to a blend of customs, traditions and beliefs. What is certain however, is that Halloween must be understood within a sacred and non-secular context. For example, the most recognizable historical custom is the observance of Samhain, held on or around October 31st. Marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the ‘darker half’ of the year, Samhain marked a particular time in the year, when the forces governing the spiritual and tangible conflicted, whereby spirits or fairies could cross more easily into the human realm. These spirits were both feared and revered. Offerings of food, drink, and portions of crops were left in appeasement, so to ensure livestock survived the winter. Likewise, Samhain also marked the time when the souls of the dead were believed to revisit homes. Places were set at dinner tables and by the fire to welcome them. In several countries, including Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the festival included “mumming” and “guising” as a way of interacting or indeed safeguarding oneself against such spirits. Going house-to-house dressed in costume or disguise, typically reciting verses or songs in exchange for food, became a customary observance, while turnips were hollowed out as lanterns, often carved with monstrous faces representing spirits or ghouls. This practice later spread to the rest of England, known as jack-o’-laterns. Mass Irish and Scottish immigration to North America during the 19th century imported the holiday’s celebrations, gradually assimilating into mainstream society by the first decade of the 20th century.
Today, Halloween involves an array of festive activities, including trick-or-treating (or the related “guising”), attending costume parties, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, visiting haunted house attractions, playing pranks, and telling scary stories. Although street safety, safe costume-wearing, costume-handling and treat-collecting may be more prevalent a threat today than it was historically, due to the increase in population, technology, traffic, pop culture, news and media, the ancestral roots of modern day Halloween continues to provide the kind of shock and awe, reverence and mystery that inspires and transcends. If just for one night, Halloween allows a glimpse into the unknown, exploiting the darkest secrets of our past, present and future by demonstrating our willingness to submit to the absinth of phenomenon in a powerful game of truth or dare. So before you chalk up Halloween to some childish exploit geared toward marketing candy to small children and horror movies to adults, or an unsafe customary practice that ultimate holds little applicability in the 21st century, take a moment to rethink what Halloween really is about. The gathering, the get-togethers, the laughter and fun. The sharing and caring. In doing so, you may just discover that its value can be found in both the sinister and the silly. After all, what is more real? Reality or imagination? And who is more naive? The child or the adult? Happy Halloween!