The Story of Halloween
It’s almost that time of year again – the time when little kids disguise themselves as witches, ghosts and goblins. They become extortionists, ringing your doorbell and demanding treats if you want to avoid having tricks being played on you.
By the 1950’s, the only acceptable treats were candy and the demand was high enough to support the establishment of several candy makers who are well-known today, such as Hershey, Mars and Nestle. In recent years, nearly 600 million pounds of candy are purchased in the US alone in the days leading up to Halloween – representing more than 10% of annual candy sales and a revenue of nearly two billion dollars! By comparison, candy purchases for Easter and Christmas amount to less than half that.
We carve pumpkins, set out candles and pretend to be scared when we open our doors to the trick-or-treaters and see their spooky costumes , perhaps with a wink to the parents of the youngest ones who are standing a few feet away. The purchase of these costumes collectively represented another 3.2 billion dollars in US sales in 2019.
How all of this came about is the fascinating story we will be telling you about over the next three weeks. Check back here on Sundays and Wednesdays to read the next installment!
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Part 1: The Celtic and Roman Origins of Halloween
The end of summer, the harvest, and the beginning of the long, dark, cold days of winter were terrifying times for ancient people. The ghosts of ancestors could return to the land of the living and no one could be sure of surviving until warmth and the sun returned again the following Spring. For people completely dependent on the whims of an unpredictable, natural world, they sought comfort in ceremonies and festivals. This is a bit of their story.
Part 2: The Christianization of Halloween
The Western Roman Empire was a hostile environment for the early Christian Church until the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan. With that guarantee of religious tolerance, however, the Church expanded rapidly throughout Europe and into what is now the UK and Ireland and encountered once more the Celtic celebrations of the dead. The way in which the Church adapted their customs and festivals to Christian celebrations makes up the next fascinating chapter in the story of Halloween.
Part 3: The Evolution of Halloween by the Medieval Churches
The story of Halloween took a darker turn in the Middle Ages with the splintering of the Catholic Church and the start of the Reformation. Luther’s refusal to recant his Ninety-Five Theses at the Diet of Worms resulted in his excommunication and the creation of the Protestant Church. Many of the elements of Halloween celebrations we enjoy today began as horrible tortures of women wrongly accused of practicing witchcraft.
Part 4: From the British Isles to America
By the early years of the 19th century, much of the religious fervor around Halloween caused by the Reformation had been replaced by games and parties throughout the British Isles to celebrate the end of the harvest and beginning of Winter. The suffering and starvation of millions of people caused by the Great Irish Potato Famine created a flood of immigrants to the United States – immigrants who brought their Halloween celebration customs with them and made them part of the American culture.
Much of the evolution of Halloween celebrations after the Second World War took place in America since most of Europe was focused for many years on economic recovery from near total destruction. Halloween costumes of every imaginable sort could be purchased and parties with amazing baked treats became commonplace. Scary Halloween movies were widely enjoyed and major theme parks created popular spooky haunts to terrify adults and children alike.
Part 6: What Scares Us and Why?
The scary, uncontrollable spirits, ghosts and witches that terrified mankind over millennia had lost their grip by the middle of the 20th century. Yet Halloween just wasn’t complete without things to scare us – and the entertainment industry was ready to fill that need with haunted house theme parks, terrifying movies and unforgettable horror stories in books, magazines and TV serial shows. This final installment of the Halloween story will look at why and under which circumstances we enjoy being scared – and what story elements scare us.
All photos in this series from Wikipedia Commons or other public domain sources