Americans Do Halloween Best
Hooray For Commercialization!
By Tom Huddleston, Jr.
This week, hordes of munchkins will descend upon home after home, dressed as miniature Mileys and half-sized Harry Potters. With an unwavering sense of entitlement, they will demand tiny fistfuls of candy and treats, while looking down with snooty disdain at insulting offerings of fruit or, even worse, store-brand chocolate.
Meanwhile, adults not held captive by the chaperoned kiddie-armies of the night will flock to their respective theme parties, hoping to outdo their fellow revelers with a costume either more topical or more licentious. But do any of these participants in the modern Halloween tradition even know how it came to be that such ridiculous annual acts became the norm?
Though it is currently celebrated in a myriad of countries, Halloween’s roots can be traced back primarily to the British Isles. Both Pagan and Christian traditions seem to view the last day of October and the first two days of November as a time when the souls of the dead return to our mortal world. Both the Celtic holiday of Samhain and the Christian, All Saints Day, or All Hallows Eve (the shortened form of which is actually the genesis for the word “Halloween”) are primary examples.
Ancient Celtic celebrations included bonfires and slaughtering cattle for the winter. Christians were pious sticks in the holiday mud by comparison — originally spending the holiday paying homage to deceased saints.
Robert Burns’ 1785 poem, “Halloween,” shows the holiday moving from more religious to more celebration. The piece describes scenes of dancing fairies and canoodling country-folk, while praising the day as an opportunity to raise “a social glass of strunt,” aka drink with friends. At roughly the same time, Irish and English celebrants were incorporating all kinds of fun and spooky games into the holiday.
In addition to the usual apple bobbing and ghost stories, early observers also participated in various types of divination. Traditional Irish Barmbrack cakes were often baked with items hidden within that could “predict” future events. Participants hoped to chance upon a coin to indicate wealth, or a ring to predict marriage. Though tragically, none of these items ever managed to predict death by choking on a Barmbrack cake.
Another popular game of portents claimed to give young women an opportunity to catch a glimpse of their future spouses. According to legend, if a young woman stood in the dark on Halloween night and looked into a mirror, she would see the face of her future husband — unless she saw a skull, in which case she would die before marriage. Unfortunately, this last caveat may have singlehandedly destroyed the already fragile skull-mirror industry.
Had the Great Famine not led to a mass immigration of potato-hungry Irish in the 19th century, , such ghoulish games may never have found their way to our welcoming shores. But, around the 1840s the newly appointed Irish-Americans arrived in the states after receiving the following telegram from President James K. Polk:
“Hey, Irish. Sorry about the potatoes :( Wanna crash here for a bit? Bring holidays! - JKP”
And, in the end, Halloween was so much fun that we had to let the Irish stay — kind of like that ginger who never wanted to leave your house who knew fun games and the best curse words.
Once the holiday spread throughout the new country, it got the American treatment (i.e., less with the religion and the marriage predictions, more with the candy and synthetic cobwebs). Many of the old traditions received a makeover. In his book, Halloween Through Twenty Centuries, Ralph Linton points out that jack-o’-lanterns had previously been made from large turnips and rutabagas, but pumpkins were more prevalent in America (it’s also really hard to carve obscene pictures of your neighbors into a turnip).
Linton also mentions that, in England, the practice of wearing costumes originated when some townspeople would dress as their patron saints, while others would don the garb of angels and devils. This practice is essentially the same today, but only if you count Octomom and Balloon Boy as patron saints, which you all should.
Over the years, the holiday has continued to grow commercially and in popularity, surviving the protests of evangelicals and even a few razor-blade filled apples. This year, retailers are predicting that the most popular Halloween costumes will include the Twilight vampires; Michael Jackson in various states of age, color and life/death; Hannah Montana; and Kate Gosselin’s possum-coif, according to a blog post by National Retail Federation spokesperson Kathy Grannis.
Perhaps if the Irish immigrants had known that their holiday would be turned into an excuse for mass indulgence in candy and celebrity emulation by children and adults, they would have kept quiet. But, I suppose they should really be more worried about what we’ve done to St. Patrick’s Day. Image courtesy of jcr.chu.cam.ac.uk
Tom Huddleston, Jr. is a regular web contributor of Jerk Explains it All.