What's The Deal With Halloween?

The Hub and I recently spent a week in Ireland. It was the week before Halloween and I was struck by the sheer volume and frequency of Halloween decorations and Halloween chat on the radio stations as we took in the scenery while driving the Ring of Kerry and around the Dingle Peninsula. It wasn't even just atmospheric pubs that were in on the action - even the most mediocre of restaurants had paper goblins hanging from the ceiling. We were particularly impressed by the decorations in The Grand in Killarney, which we stopped in a few times for their toe-tapping tunes.

The skeleton bat in the next photo looked even more spooky when I snapped its picture than it was in person. But what skeleton bat isn't scary?

It got me thinking: did Americans get Halloween from the Irish? Something I often hear from Brits is that they celebrate Halloween, but not like we Americans do it.

After we returned home I did some basic research. Interestingly enough, Halloween didn't develop as a holiday in the U.S. until the mid 19th century, around the time of mass immigration from Ireland and Scotland. The origins of Halloween are not clear cut, but one theory is that it originated from early Celtic traditions of Samhaim (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in), a festival that welcomed in the dark half of the year. The festival coincided with the end of the harvest season, but more eerily was a time when it was believed spirits could come back from the dead and visit their earthly homes and loved ones. Our modern Jack-O-Lantern actually has its roots in a carved turnip with a candle inside, used to either ward off the evil dead spirits (since it wasn't just the friendly ghosties that came for a visit) or to light the way when outside during the festival. When immigrants came to the new world they adopted the tradition using the bigger pumpkin that was readily available in North America.

Of course the Catholic Church co-opted these sorts of harvest festivals as holy days, moving its All Saints Day (which was originally in May to co-opt a Roman festival of the dead) to November 1st and adding All Souls Day (Nov. 2) to allow people to celebrate the life of their dead loved ones, in addition to the more holy saints. All Saints Day was originally called All Hallows, which made October 31 All Hallow's Eve (you can see where the current name originated from).

Halloween celebrations reached a crisis point in the U.S. in the 1930s in the depression when the tradition of trickery started to cause more serious financial problems. For rural areas, putting carts on top of haystacks might not have been that bad, but letting animals out of their pens could cause financial ruin for farmers during the already bleak economic times. So it was civic organizations that tried to get young people going to parties and good old capitalism took hold -- companies started making paper decorations and paper costumes. The phrase 'trick or treat' was born as adults tried to distract the youth by handing out treats in lieu of disruptive behavior. (The tradition of going door to door may have been inspired by the medieval tradition of poor children collecting soul cakes from people in return for praying for their family members stuck in purgatory ahead of All Souls Day.)

What interested me the most, however, was the fact that Halloween in Britain may have been supressed by the reformation, as it was considered a Catholic tradition. Plus, marking Guy Fawkes' thwarted attempt to blow up parliament with Bonfire Night could have usurped Halloween celebrations, since November 5th is so close to October 31.

Today the practice of celebrating Halloween in the U.K. has grown. There are always parties the Saturday night closest to the holiday. But as far as I know, it is nothing like the way it is celebrated in America (and Ireland!). And, dressing up is strictly limited to 'scary' costumes, such as witches, devils and the like. I have a personal theory about this. In the U.K. dressing up is a big thing. There are many 'fancy dress' parties, with themes (remember Bridget Jones and the vicars and tarts party?). In the U.S. Halloween is it -- the one day you get to cast off your identity and assume another. So all types of costumes are acceptable, the more creative the better.

But however you celebrate, in whatever country you celebrate, have a Happy Halloween!

(I leave you with an a photo of your average restaurant in Ireland last week.)

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  1. Interesting bit of history! Love the photos--I'd have never guessed Ireland was so enamored with the day!

  2. I was sitting in a restaurant surrounded by all the decorations and thought, hey, this is not like England at all... and my hunch was right! (My hunch was also right that the Lake Hotel was haunted, but it did remind me of the Shining, so a given, really.)


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