A Cultural Look at Halloween

It’s Halloween as I write this.

I have long wondered what the appeal is for Halloween. I think I turned sour on it when my kids got to be Trick or Treat age and costumes and candy became the focus.

I was the world’s least creative mom when it came to figuring out costumes. When he was three and wouldn’t put on the ghost-like sheet I’d spent a good ten minutes making, my son Dave toured the neighborhood as a “three-year old suburban white boy.” That was fun.

What was never fun was watching David carom off the walls for the next two days as the sugar buzz did its bewitching.  This was just before I finally read Adele Davis’ You Are What You Eat, with its wonderfully succinct summary of the evils of sugar and its history.


But back then it was the costumes that got me. Keep in mind, this has never been where my creative juices flow. Even back in summer camp as a kid, I stayed as far away from the crafts cabin as I could.


I’d be hiking in the woods, learning to swim, building a campfire, making sassafras tea (after gathering the bark, of course, or was it the roots?), and anything else that kept me far away from beaded belts and leather lanyards.

So, as you might imagine, it didn’t take me long to go from today’s Halloween, that kid-centered $6 billion industry (at least here in the U.S.) — $2.5 billion for the costumes and another $3.5 billion for the candy — to how we view death, and more specifically, “the dead” in our culture.


This is a blog on Cultural Differences after all.
On how culture impacts our lives every day, and often in ways we are unaware of.
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Off I went to look at how other cultures view death and dying. And how our particular rituals around it came to be.  I had so much fun, I got three posts out of it.

For the one today, we’ll go backwards, beginning with the past fifty years and going back say, oh, 2500 years?

Lump the peculiarities of Trick or Treat nights of the past half century and just say it burgeoned with suburban sprawl.
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I mean, we have 2500 years to cover.  We have to make some cuts.

The Irish and Scots immigrants in the mid 1800s brought with them their traditions of

  • souling” (going door to door to pay homage to dead souls in exchange for food) and
  • guising” (dressing up in disguise to fool the meandering ghosts)

Those traditions are tied to the 8th Century’s Pope Gregory III, who set Nov. 1 as the day to honor all saints and martyrs, expanding on the May 3rd date, All Martyrs Day, set in 609 A.D. by Pope Boniface IV. Out of that, All Souls’ Day emerged.

Back a bit further to two Roman-era traditions:

  • Feralia, which was a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the dead.
  • Pomona, a Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple is her symbol.
Thanks to pictursify.com for the image.

Yup. We have the bobbing for apples tradition, thanks to Pomona.

We’re not done yet. 

You knew we’d wind up with Samhain, didn’t you?  But did you know how to pronounce it?  It’s SOW in.  Here’s a quick little video to help. 

You’re welcome.

2500 years ago, the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth on November 1, their New Year. Samhain was their holiday to pay homage to the death of summer.

This was the time, they believed, when the spirits of the dead mingled with those of the living; when the boundary that normally divides us, was temporarily suspended.

And, since these dead ghosts could cause trouble, the people donned costumes of animal heads and pelts in the expectation this would thwart the returning souls’ mischief.

From this ancient Celtic culture of the Iron Age (not to be confused with modern one of Boston, about which you can learn more here) through two Catholic Popes and into our 21st century, a strong thread connects to today’s Halloween.

Thanks to chasing-fireflies.com for this image of "Neon Feather Witch costume for girls." (Now just $19.97)
Thanks to chasing-fireflies.com for this image of “Neon Feather Witch costume for girls.” (Now just $19.97)

OK.  Maybe not all of our Halloween traditions are so deep rooted.

How about you?  Which are your favorite Halloween traditions? 

Next week: It’s Sadie Hawkins Day (or maybe I’ll write about the election)


8 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween either, Janet. I told my niece I was the Halloween equivalent of Scrooge. I could easily say “Bah, Humbug!” to Halloween (though I’ve had fun writing and reading spooky stories and poems this year).

    I’ve also never been very good at costumes. When I was a kid, we did simple costumes–my grandmother’s “peasant outfit” or dressing in black as a vampire or witch. I think my sister wore her ballet outfits. I’m sure I was excited about the candy.

    Perhaps it would be different if there was more to the holiday, as there is in Mexico with Day of the Dead. But I know some people love Halloween.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I know! I’ve learned recently it’s the favorite holiday of one of my d-i-ls. How can that be? Must be memories. Even as a kid, I remember thinking it was a lot of effort for little result. I remember being confused by having to say “Trick or Treat.” I knew what the treat was (gimme, gimme, gimme), but never did figure out the trick part.
      Sigh. thanks for tuning in. And thanks for that fantastic poem on Selma this morning. I wish my system still offered that link to one’s own blog. Alas. The downside of MailChimp.

  2. Cathy Monaghan
    | Reply

    I also am a Scrooge/Curmudgeon when it comes to Halloween, and any other holiday. And I tend to be a non-consumer as well, so there really is no hope for me. I’ve decided to rename “Halloween” to “Have-a-Wine” Day which is much more to my liking. And yes, I did think of Have-a-Whine Day, but it didn’t seem as inviting. Love your posts, Janet!! Can’t wait for the after Nov. 8th one!!!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Uh, oh. I seem to have set the expectation bar high. I too am eager to see what I wind up saying. I tried doing blog posts weeks in advance, which was great when I needed to take a break. But this year they are all coming anew each week, usually just a few days prior. Some of them deserve a bit more simmering before they are ready to serve, but c’est la vie. Or, I guess, “and so it goes.” I’m so glad you popped over Cathy. I think you’ll enjoy our little international collection of minds (and hearts).

  3. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, I had to laugh as I used to dread Halloween when my kids were little because of the effects of all that candy! Now I get to enjoy my grands and send them home to their parents to deal with their sugar-highs. I guess you can add my name to the Halloween Scrooge list. Interesting post on the background of Halloween.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      What’s that saying? If I’d known grandkids would be so much fun, I’d have had them first? And yes, the “send them home to their parents” is a big part of that. But how fun it can be to be able to “spoil” them a bit (I use quotes as I really think the word is not right. Must be a better one for what we do when we let them do things they usually aren’t allowed. Hmmm. a new blog post idea. What do we call it?) Thanks for stopping by Kathy.

  4. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Hmm . . . it appears I may be alone here in actually having always had a fondness for Halloween, although it may simply be because I have a late October birthday, and Fall was always my favorite time of year. I do recognize, however (more and more every year, it seems) some of its absurd excesses and the lack of real meaning behind it, at least as it is commonly celebrated. It seems Halloween has gone the way of so many of our commercial holidays here in the States — with a de-emphasis of any original meanings, and an over-emphasis on gluttony.

    The last several years, I’ve attended a Dia De Los Muertos celebration in Boise, and have come to deeply appreciate the meaning behind the celebration — not to mention the beautiful and expressive ways in which it is celebrated. Too bad Halloween hasn’t been able to hold onto more meaning than dressing up and eating peanut butter cups.

    I have to say, though, my girls love it, and it’s fun seeing them have such a good time with it. I also think it may have some small value as a way for kids to explore darker or less sanitized, conventional themes in a safe way, and to indulge in some creative fantasy.

    Favorite tradition? There are a few, but I’m still a sucker for “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Well, happy belated birthday, Tim. I’m sorry I missed it. My granddaughter Kendall ‘s is on the 25th, btw. She was 10.

      So, you like Halloween. That’s OK. I love diversity, as you know.

      Actually, I appreciate you calling attention to the “explore the darker or less sanitized themes” idea. I wrote a bit about Dia De Los Muertes (the Day of the Dead) when this post was about 2000 words, so, it had to be moved to another day. Maybe 2017. Incorporating the history of, the reason for, and the symbolism inherent in these holidays is important. But I’m not sure how we would do that here. I can see a batch of very impatient costumed children standing listening to my little sermon about the meaning of Halloween before they escape to the sidewalks.

      When my kids were younger (I can’t say Trick or Treat age, because they still go out!) I didn’t consider learning more about it; I just developed an oppositional stance. Hmmm.

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