Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Then and Now and In-Between

Probably the most telling feature of Halloween is the fact that it isn’t celebrated world-wide. According to Wikipedia, Halloween is primarily celebrated in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and (more recently) Japan. Sometimes Halloween, which is also known as All Hallows Eve, Samhain, Hallows End and Noche de la Brujas (Night of the Witches), is recognized in Sweden, Australian and many Latin American countries. So what is the history of Halloween, a strange holiday replete with costumes, Jack O’ Lanterns and candy?

Halloween, as a holiday celebration, is over 2000 years old, beginning with the Pagan Celts in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. It designated the beginning of the Pagan New Year, a time to give thanks to the sun god for a rich harvest. They called it Samhain, which in Gaelic means November, in celebration of the lord of death who gathered the spirits of those who had died. They were allowed one day each year to revisit Earth.
The Gaelic calendar year was split into two — a period of light and a period of darkness. This “dark half” began with Samhain, and was rife with many symbols we continue to associate with our modern version of Halloween — apples, bonfires and even honoring the dead.

The pagan belief was that on that one day each year the dead could return to be entertained with food. If food and shelter were not provided, the spirits might become angry and vengeful and could cast spells or do evil deeds to the living. Sacrifices were then offered to appease the spirits.

In the 7th Century, the Roman Catholic Church integrated Samhain into what they called All Saints Day Eve/All Souls Day. Originally, this was celebrated May 13 known as All Hallows Festival, but later moved to November 1 to coincide with Samhain, beginning October 31 and called All Hallows Eve.

The word “Halloween” does not have roots in Celtic traditions, however — but Catholic. The original name of the holiday was “All Hallow’s Eve” and was used to describe the “eve” (or evening) before All Saints’ Day which occurs on November 1st. The word “hallow” means “to sanctify” (to purify or set aside for purification in Old English. So, breaking down the meaning of the word “Halloween” further, it might be translated to mean “evening before all are blessed.”

This hybridization of celebrations resulted in unusual festivities. For example, the returning spirits were souls in Purgatory returning as witches and toads to abuse those who had wronged them in life. Halloween fires had new meaning, now meant to comfort souls in Purgatory while people prayed, waving burning straw in the air.
Even the idea of trick-or-treating by evil spirits took on a new concept with costumed children going house to house on All Souls Day offering to fast for the departed souls in return for money or an offering.

As the Celts absorbed the new religion into their culture, they also wove their Pagan festivals into their new lifestyle. The origin of the carved pumpkin, for example, began as a carved turnip with flickering candle within that when placed around the countryside was supposed to chase away the spirits of the dead. The term Jack O’ Lantern comes from Jack of the Lantern. In the Irish legend, when Jack tried to play a trick on the devil, Satan tossed him a burning coal from hell which Jack caught in his turnip lantern and was condemned to walk the earth searching for rest.

One Celtic rite that transferred over was that of the fire rite was practiced in many areas around the world on the night before the new year. The old fire was allowed to go out and a new one was kindled—usually a sacred fire from which the fires of the village were relit. The fires were thought to rejuvenate the waning sun and aid in banishing evil spirits. Druids built hilltop fires to celebrate important festivals. Ghosts and witches feared fire, it was thought, and so fire became the best weapon against evil spirits. Witchcraft was punished by burning at the stake, fire being used as means of purification. The light that fires gave off was a sign of sacredness.

The skeleton is a form of the god of the dead, the witches' "horned god." The Dictionary of Satanism by Wade Baskin says this about skulls and skeletons under "skull worship": "Skulls play an important role as sacred relics and as objects of worship among primitives. Among Polynesians and Melanesians, skulls of ancestors are worshiped in order to establish connections with the spirits of the dead. Like the head of Osiris in Egypt, the skulls of ancestors may also serve as tutelar deities. The head or its parts, each of which may stand for the whole, can be used as magical food or as a means of increasing the fertility of the soil." Under "Skull," the Dictionary of Lore and Legend says, "Symbol of death, often with crossed bones beneath."

A pagan practice that was not eradicated upon the coming of Christianity was witchcraft. The word "witch" comes from the Anglo-Saxon Wicca, or "wise one." Witches were thought to be possessors of magic. Witches, who worship the deities of nature, have living talismans or symbols through which they derive their powers. They invoke spirits to enter the bodies of their talismans. Some have dogs, owls, snakes or swine for their talismans, but the most common are cats. Cats have been closely associated with mystery religion from the Egyptians to the Norse. But the Celts had a particular fear of cats, believing they were humans who had been changed into feline form by evil powers. The black cat particularly was connected to demonic powers. Black cats are the chief idol of the goddess of Wicca, Diana. In legend, she turns into a black cat to commit incest with her brother, Lucifer. Eventually the Druids themselves came to be regarded as witches. Witch hunting during Halloween became almost a national pastime in the colonial years of our nation. But that was yesterday. Halloween is regarded as the high "Sabbath" for practicing witches today.

Today vs Originally
So how has Halloween evolved over the centuries? If you are a parent, you probably have fond memories of white sheets with eye-holes or hula girls, gypsies and hobos running from house to house joyfully calling out trick-or-treat for a pillowcase full of candy. And when you got home you delved straight into that plunder without picking through it for hidden razor blades or needle marks.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors. –SOURCE: History Channel’s History of Halloween

Today? That has all changed. Halloween has lost a lot of the fun magic and lightheartedness it had fifty years ago. Take a look at the costumes for sale in any Halloween store. While there might be an occasional cat or cowboy, there are more sexy French maids or Vixens and Jason the murderer costumes.

Halloween has become a celebration of gore and violence. Television channels sponsor a month-long festival of gore in horror movies. Even everyday television programming has pushed the envelope of gore and horror to what is surely the brink…right? How about the new show An American Horror Story? Or Grimm? Even the reality shows demonstrate the worst of human nature.

According to Leanne Italie in her article at, Halloween has gone to the dogs.
Halloween has morphed into a gore fest that has kids as young as 6 unleashing their inner monsters in ultra-violent costumes - blood-smeared chain saws and spiked killing gloves sold separately.

Options include Leatherface ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), Jason ("Friday the 13th"), Freddy ("A Nightmare on Elm Street") and Michael Myers ("Halloween"). Costume sizes can run so small that many wearers might be too young to have seen the slasher movies under film industry guidelines.

Fanged creatures feasting on brain stems. Possessed babies chomping on arms. Not all parents think it's OK for the holiday second only to Christmas in the minds of many kids to be a celebration of the most deranged characters pop culture has to offer.

"Bloody, sadistic, nightmare-inducing Halloween costumes are indeed being made and marketed for kids, and no one seems to care," said Joel Schwartzberg, a parenting writer and Montclair, Essex County, dad of a 10-year-old boy and twin 7-year-old girls.

Schwartzberg is fighting back at, which he hopes will raise awareness about how Halloween has strayed from "sickly sweet to just plain sick." No puritan, he said he loves a good horror flick and has even written some himself. But what's the point of all the realistic gore - for the very young, anyway?
"I think wearing these costumes and being exposed to human depravity, even in a 'fun' context, doesn't scar kids so much as desensitize them to brutal violence," Schwartzberg said. "Kids are less able to distinguish between real world and fictional brutality than grown-ups."

Some schools are also concerned, toning down Halloween celebrations or banning them altogether because of complaints about the gore factor, along with religious objections and concerns about too much candy and potentially dangerous props such as pointy toy swords and vision-impairing masks.
But it's Halloweeeeeeeeeen, costume companies and other parents argue, urging the bothered among them to exercise the privilege of saying "No" to violent, realistic gore.

"It's one night a year - let them have fun as long as it's something that's not dangerous or putting their life in jeopardy," said Big Lake, Minn., mom Cindy Chapman, who has a 9-year-old daughter. "I also have a rule: No store bought outfits, so that truly forces my daughter to be creative and it cuts down on a lot of the commercial gore."

Marilynn A. Wick, founder and CEO for one of the largest costume distributors, Costume World, said the company relies on customers to "use their best discretion in selecting costumes and makeup for young people." She added that children are inspired by films and video games and "Costume World has a responsibility and a mission to supply our clients with the most up-to-date costumes and accessories, many of which are inspired by these visual stimuli."

Many "too scary" costumes are elaborate affairs, including a child Doctor Zombie available in size small with a "highly crafted" mask of a rotting face, a blood-splattered lab coat and "fully detailed" exposed and rotted rib cage, intestines and protruding knee bone.

Other costumes chase a "brand," such as the tattered, shredded "Freddy Krueger Child Sweater" available in extra small (sizes 4-6) at Costume World's online store right next to "Flannel Curious George."

Denver mom Tracy Kinner said her two kids, 5 and 7, were "literally scared of Halloween and trick-or-treaters until last year," adding: "We'd have to find something else to do because they didn't want strange, scary, gory trick-or-treaters coming to our door. I, personally, am OK and somewhat relieved that they saw this as scary and aren't desensitized already."

Lori Liddle, a former executive for American Girl and Lands' End, got a fright of her own at how the costume industry has changed since her three grown children were young when she started wandering trade shows to stock her Wishcraft Halloween line at

"We were really kind of shocked at how scary and gruesome everything was," she said. "There were aisles too scary for me to walk down."

So she set out to "bring the magic back to Halloween" through more than 150 "kid-friendly" costumes that include dreamy little sultans and genies, smiling spider queens and playful bat capes, along with brave but blood-free medieval knights and gladiators.

Liddle suggests making Halloween a family affair through nonviolent group themes and simplifying the fun through personalized costumes and accessories.

"The fact is there are so many unhappy, scary things in the world," she said. "While Halloween has its roots in scary, it really is about dress-up and imagination. At the end of the day, kids really don't want to be scared."

Enough said? Now you understand why I wrote the YA Seraphym Wars series and the MG Stardust Warriors series. It's time for our younger generation to become aware that evil is insidious and is quickly escalating in our daily lives.


Roseanne Dowell said...

Interesting information, Rebecca

Pat McDermott said...

Quite a history, Rebecca. Very informative and enjoyable reading!

Unknown said...

Thanks, guys. I even learned some stuff doing the research.

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