The commercialized, creepy, zombies-lurking Halloween is a product of American capitalism that evolved with a boost from Victorian spiritualism in the mid-1800s. Its popularity has skyrocketed during the past four decades thanks to Hollywood and America's penchant for all things ghoulish and bloody. Halloween's success in the States - and populations of ex-pats - attracted the interest of other countries, like France and Germany, who have begun celebrating the holiday only in the last 30 years. Their celebrations look very much like those here - parties, costumes, trick-or-treating.
Way before this, however, Halloween was, at its simplest, a harvest festival in ancient Ireland. The Celtic calendar - even today - begins on Nov. 1 with Samhain (sow-en), meaning "end of summer." Technically, though, it begins at nightfall on Oct. 31 because in Celtic tradition everything moves from dark to light.
Though little is known of the original rituals, research and speculation point to bringing animals in from the pasture for winter, killing the weakest of them for winter food and harvesting fruits and vegetables for consumption and winter storage. There were also several days of feasting surrounding Samhain, and truces were called among enemy factions for determining the coming year's direction and for peaceful games and competitions.
Receiving treats on Halloween can be traced back several centuries. The creepier aspects like eyeballs, spiders and mummies developed during the 20th century as the movie industry found out that “scary” sells.
Pumpkins as jack-o-lanterns were non-existent until settlers arrived in North America because the pumpkin is a native plant. In all the centuries before, people carved out turnips and potatoes to light their ways on dark Halloween nights.
On Oct. 31, "oiche shamhna" or "evening of samhain," families extinguished the hearth fires that had burned all year and attended a community bonfire where Druids asked for protection, told fortunes and welcomed the new year. The Celts believed that this night between the years was a supernatural time when beings from beyond could come through the thinner veils and walk the earth to communicate with the living.
To ensure protection and appease some of the other-worldly spirits, sacrifices were made. True sacrifices, as in animals and prisoners of war, some of them live, thrown into the celebration bonfire or drowned in a nearby body of water.
As the Romans expanded their empire, cultural traditions, beliefs and rituals deemed pagan were reconfigured or extinguished. Samhain was "reconfigured" and renamed to meet the Catholic Church's standards.
All Saints Day arose out of recognizing all saints and martyrs. Originally, each saint had a day of his or her own, but the numbers became so great that All Hallows Day, or Allhallowmas, was designated in the middle of the fourth century to honor all saints. It was celebrated in the spring until Pope Gregory III, in the mid-8th century, changed the date to Nov. 1.
He did this, first, because there was more food available for the feasts since it was the end of harvest. Second, the Pope wanted a competitive celebration to Ireland's Samhain. Therefore, the Irish feast of reflection and honoring the dead now had a church-sanctioned alternative - on the same day.
This is how the holiday's name, Samhain, became All Hallow's E'en, a.k.a. All Saint's Evening, a.k.a. Halloween.
Other Halloween traditions have stemmed from both of these holidays' beginnings. Dressing up in costumes evolved from the All Hallows processions in Britain, where children dressed as angels, saints and devils paraded through town. In centuries before, people dressed up in scarier garb and danced around the Samhain bonfires to chase evil spirits back to the beyond. Another superstition says that people didn't want to be recognized by spirits visiting the earth that night, so they wore masks.
Children in the processional were given sweet biscuits or cakes for their efforts, but trick-or-treating also has its roots in "souling." This was a custom, also in Britain, that started when, on All Soul's Day (Nov. 2), the poor begged for food. More fortunate people would hand out "soul cakes" in exchange for prayers for relatives who had passed on.
The English Reformation of the 16th century discouraged the All Hallows celebration. In place of it, the reformers added "Reformation Day" (surprise) to the British calendar. This was also a day of reflection and looking ahead to the new year, much like the Samhain tradition.
In 1605, disgruntled British Catholics, Guy Fawkes and his friends, initiated a plot to help the Catholics resume control of England's throne in part by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Soldiers found him guarding the explosives hidden under the House of Lords and tortured him until he confessed. Nov. 5 was, from then on, named "Guy Fawkes Day," celebrating the capture of one of England's greatest traitors. He is burned in effigy each year, and this national holiday takes the place of Halloween.
Mexico and Latin America celebrate Dias de Los Muertos from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. "Days of the Dead" is a more reverent and joyous celebration that honors family ancestors and welcomes spirits back home to visit with the living. Death is traditionally seen as a natural progression to the next life, and the Mayan and Aztec civilizations celebrated this with the harvest and end of the old year and preparation for the new year. Feasts with flowers and dancing celebrated life and helped usher the departed into their new lives on the other side.
Spanish explorers and missionaries did not understand this view of death and tried to turn the celebrations into solemn, prayer-filled time honoring the saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church. They never took complete control, however. Dias de Los Muertos is still celebrated today with overnight vigils on Oct. 31 and family picnics at the graveyards on Nov. 1. Gravesites are cleaned for the winter on Nov. 2. Families light candles for the dead, inviting them back to share memories and stories. The atmosphere is festive, positive and healing.
Elaborate altars are created with three tiers, four candles, favorite foods and flowers of the spirits and include water, salt and bread. Bright tissue paper flags with intricate designs are placed around the altars as in the Aztec ritual. Calaveras, hand-crafted skeletons dressed to represent the departed loved ones, sit on the tiers and are funny and friendly rather than frightening.
Here children's treats come in the form of candy bones and coffins. In Spain, a skull-shaped pastry called "bones of the holy" made with anise seed and orange is the favorite treat.
Many European countries have customs that are similar to the traditional or American Halloween observances. Even in Russia people celebrate with pumpkins and parties as in the States, though trick-or-treating is rare. However, the Orthodox Church has encouraged a ban on the festivities citing its pagan roots and destructive influences of Western society.
In Asia, cultures do honor their departed and welcome them back in special ceremonies. A common element is floating lanterns to light the way home for spirits. These celebrations, though, take place during the summer, not fall.
Whether end of harvest or "Children of the Corn," whether eyeball cake pops or a graveside family picnic, Halloween and its derivative traditions make it one of the most popular holidays in the world. Celebrating with family and friends is the important thing.
Have a happy and safe Halloween.