By Philippa Hadlow
Reading time: 14 minutes
I’ve never been a fan of Halloween. I’ve watched the kids get out and about, though; dressed to the nines and gorging on treats with nary a trick to be seen. I’ve accompanied them to the local haunted house and refused to go in. The screams and roars coming from the interior and the emerging white faces – triumph at fear conquered and relief at life maintained - were enough to make me quiver and baulk like a stubborn pony.
My eight-year-old daughter was kind enough to pat me on the arm and ask me confidentially: “Do you not feel comfortable about going in, Mum? That's OK." She understood, and I was grateful. I couldn’t see the point of all the fuss - and aside from the tooth fairy, who harvests the consequences of all those sweet treats, and the retail outlets, who happily indulge the consumer’s desire for fake cobwebs, pumpkins, and ghoul costumes - who really does?
By Philippa Hadlow
Reading time: 14 minutes
I’ve never been a fan of Halloween. I’ve watched the kids get out and about, though; dressed to the nines and gorging on treats with nary a trick to be seen. I’ve accompanied them to the local haunted house and refused to go in. The screams and roars coming from the interior and the emerging white faces – triumph at fear conquered and relief at life maintained – were enough to make me quiver and baulk like a stubborn pony.
My eight-year-old daughter was kind enough to pat me on the arm and ask me confidentially: “Do you not feel comfortable about going in, Mum? That’s OK.” She understood, and I was grateful. I couldn’t see the point of all the fuss – and aside from the tooth fairy, who harvests the consequences of all those sweet treats, and the retail outlets, who happily indulge the consumer’s desire for fake cobwebs, pumpkins, and ghoul costumes – who really does?
As it turns out, quite a few folk, all over the world, and for centuries at that. Inured as I am by New Zealand’s youth, the idea that Halloween was an American festival first and foremost has persisted. I figured that the American practice of carving jack-o’-lanterns and trick-or-treating had been commercialised, then flung like a lolly scramble to other distant countries, like New Zealand and Australia.
Indeed the commercialisation of this festival – like so many others (think: Easter chocolate on the shelves in January hot on the heels of Boxing Days Sales and the crassness of Christmas) – has escalated hugely since marketers realised that Halloween means good business.
In a survey engineered by Cadbury (Scoop Culture, 2017), Countdown Supermarket (NZ) analysed its consumer data and discovered that sales of Halloween merchandise in 2016 increased more than 273 percent from Halloween 2015; chocolate sales also jumped more than 14 percent, and pumpkin sales shot up by a third.
According to National Retail Federation (Prosper Insights & Analytics for NRF, 2020), Americans spend about US$8 billion on Halloween every year, with the biggest chunk spent on costumes. Lolly purchases come a close second and giving candy out is the most action-packed activity of the evening with 69% of adults doing so. Overall spending has increased per person from an average of US$47 in 2005 to US$95 in 2020.
And in Britain, more than half of the population (51.5%) splashed out on Halloween in 2018, with 2019’s spending reaching a record £387 million. So, the future of haunting looks very strong. And even though these figures don’t compare with other celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, Valentines’ Day or even Mothers’ Day, they’re getting up there. I wonder why?
Marketers have certainly intensified their attention on the young adult demographic: millennials who love to dress up, frighten themselves half to death and who need no excuse to kick up their witchy boots at a good Halloween party.
Data from NRF and BIGInsight suggests that six million American adults plan to dress as a witch this year while 3.2 million will dress as vampires. And not only humans! In 2018, the NRF report estimated that 30 million Americans would spend around US$480 million on Halloween costumes for their pets. In New Zealand, companies like Spotlight (‘The Home of Halloween’), The Warehouse (AKA ‘The Scarehouse’), and a plethora of $2 Dollar-like Shops nationwide have positioned themselves well to supply the annual onslaught of giggly pre-teens and adults keen on a fancy costume, some decos and scary DIY makeup.
If your eyes are already blurring over at the thought of what’s to come this month, bear with; it’s not all shallow escapism and profiteering. I’d like to think that perhaps the real reason for Halloween’s current heyday is simply due to a reconnaissance of interest in our cultural past. And goodness (ghoulish) knows there’s profound historical depth aplenty to be explored there.
Halloween originates from Celtic lands – those that comprise Britain, France, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and, stretching back further to 150 B.C., parts of northern Europe, too. The Celts established themselves here during the Iron Age after thwarting an attempt by Julius Caesar to dislodge them. They thrived as ‘barbarians’ but their pagan beliefs, skilled craftmanship, love of art, sculpture, exquisite jewellery, and metalwork made a people who existed as a multi-faceted culture all of their own. Theirs was a wild world of beauty, visions, myths, and fantasies.
Celtic religion was polytheistic, meaning many hundreds of deities were revered, and practices were overseen by high-ranking druids. Animals, trees, rocks, specific places, and rivers were believed to possess a distinct spiritual essence (Animism), and communication with these spirits was thought possible. Clairvoyancy, shapeshifting (superhuman personal transformation into another being), nature spirits, magic mists (cloak of invisibility), and the ‘Otherworld’ – a parallel realm where deities and the dead exist were some of the Celts’ time-honoured beliefs.
The Celtic year was divided into two halves – light and dark, which were delineated by two of their four annual fire festivals. Celtic mythology made note of the pagan religious festival called the Samhain. Samhain took place midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, just after harvest and before the onset of a dark winter.
Early literature says Samhain was marked by great gatherings and feasts and was when ancient burial mounds were opened as portals to the Otherworld. It was a time when the lines between the worlds of the dead and the living were thought to become blurred, and folk would appease the spirits by offering produce from the recent harvest. Children would play games to entertain the dead, while adults would update the dead on the past year’s news. Doors and windows might be left open for the dead, the spirits, and the fairies to come in and eat cakes that had been left especially for them.
During Samhain, a practice known as ‘mumming’ was pursued (from at least the early modern era when records were discovered) whereby people went door-to-door in costume reciting verses and acting in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, protecting, and disguising oneself from the Aos Sí – the omnipresent fairies, spirits, and saints. Pranks and tricks were played out and blamed on the mischievousness of said other-worldly beings.
In the year 609, Pope Boniface IV declared a celebration called All Saints’ Day also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas in Middle English; a day to honour Christian martyrs and saints. The day before was thus known as All-Hallows’ Eve. In the mid-eighth century, All Saints’ Day was designated by Pope Gregory III to fall on November 1 to correspond with Samhain, making the occasion a remarkable combination of Christian and pagan beliefs.
However, because Christianity and paganism were contradictory; pagans celebrated ghosts of the dead, spirits, multiple deities and the supernatural world, and Christians; The Lord Jesus Christ, a bit of a mish-mash of beliefs resulted. So in the 11th century, November 2 became established as All Souls’ Day. This created the three-day observance known as Allhallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Hallows’ Day (November 1), and, as mentioned, All Souls’ Day (November 2).
All Souls’ Day was established as a concession on behalf of the Church, so the Christian dead could then be honoured legitimately. The Day was encouraged by the Church as a way to replace the ancient pagan practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits and was marked by festivities such as the giving of ‘soul cakes’ – bread desserts with a currant topping. Poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them soul cakes in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives to help them find their way out of purgatory and into heaven.
But the unchristian idea of wandering spirits persisted in some areas, as did the festivity atmosphere of Samhain. Conceding that they could not completely get rid of the supernatural elements of the celebrations, the Catholic Church began unfairly characterising the spirits as evil forces associated with the devil. In parts of Britain, Samhain customs came under attack during the Reformation and the popularity of Guy Fawkes Night (November 5) from 1605 onward saw many Halloween traditions appropriated by that holiday instead.
However, pagan Celts believed that the souls of thankful kin could return to bestow blessings just as easily as a wronged person could return to wreak revenge. “Going a-souling’ continued to happen – a practice that was adopted by children who would visit the houses in their neighbourhood to receive food and money.
‘Going a-souling’ and ‘guising’ metamorphosised into the modern tradition of ‘trick-or-treating’, one of many Halloween activities – such as apple bobbing, pranking, and scrying – adopted and adapted by modern-day celebrations. During the Samhain communal bonfire (lit for divination, protection, cleansing and possibly sacrifices), embers were flamed and placed inside carved turnips to ward off spirits and represent the souls of the dead. This practice led to the popularity of jack-o’-lanterns carved from pumpkins in 18th-century Ireland, where ancient Celtic traditions remained a significant part of the national culture. In folklore, the jack-o’-lantern is said to represent a soul denied entry into both heaven and hell.
However, the custom of Halloween wasn’t brought to America until the 1840s when Irish immigrants took flight to escape their country’s potato famine (1845-1852). Scottish clans did the same to avoid further conflict with British rule. Both needed to pursue economic opportunities. The first American Halloween celebrations featured large public parties to commemorate the upcoming harvest, tell ghost stories, sing, and dance.
Since its arrival to America, the mystical connotations associated with Halloween began to fade and become less entwined with its ancestral origins. Practices and beliefs were usurped by society’s more mainstream interpretation, however dervish human nature managed to persist in continued emphasis on trickery. In the early 1900s, Halloween ‘tricks’ were more common than the ‘treats’ (contrary to modern-day custom) and in the 1920s, rowdy pranks were becoming more difficult to pass off as the cheek of meddling spirits. Over time, cities and towns began organising tamer, family-oriented Halloween celebrations, which eventually helped control the destructive pranking. Halloween became more a kid’s celebration rather than an adult’s.
Costumes began to appear in shops, turning Halloween into a major money-making holiday. Traditional Halloween offerings, like soul cakes, were left in the tin as candy consolidated itself as the more popular, sweeter treat. By the late 1900s, Halloween had become one of the most profitable holidays for American business. The festival’s mandatory candies would supply nearly a quarter of the US’s total yearly sales.
The celebration’s connection with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day mostly fell by the wayside, and activities became secular and safer. Scary movies, community haunted houses, and festive decorations have taken over, alongside trick-or-treating and dressing up.
Has Halloween retained its mythical connotation and message? Or has it been entirely submerged in commercial merchandising and profiteering? Its Celtic origins, though hazy to some, are there to be acknowledged – and respected – for creating a popular culture that has endured for over 2000 years.