23 October 2018
The weather becomes more bearable, sweaters begin spilling out of closets and people can finally get their home décor shopping done. Halloween has undoubtedly become a hallmark of American culture, yet few understand where it comes from and what it meant to people in days past.
It must be understood that the history of Halloween as we know it in the United States does not have a single influence. While difficult to build a comprehensive argument without extensive research, Halloween is the result of a conglomeration of different harvest and end-of-summer celebrations from multiple cultures. One of the most commonly associated celebrations for Halloween is Samhain.
Traditionally, the pronunciation of Samhain sounds like “sow-in.” Samhain is a celebration of the harvest, farewell to summer and the beginning of the new year. There is also a distinctive tradition that Samhain is the period in which communication with a family’s deceased ancestors is easiest.
Communication with the dead is one reason that the Mexican tradition of Dia de las Muertos is closely associated with Halloween, while remaining a distinct cultural attribute. Dia de las Muertos is a chance for families to honor the recently departed and remember those who passed long ago. Feasts and culturally specific games are characteristic of each celebration.
It is easy to get carried away with the different celebrations that have been conglomerated into the United States version of Halloween, but it is important to recognize the distinctions and similarities. Cultural appropriation can happen very easily by even the most well-meaning of individuals if they are not informed, but the traditions explained above do not explicitly explain how Halloween has evolved.
The most general explanation does in fact lie within cultural appropriation on an institutional level. Not unlike Christmas and Easter, Samhain was converted into a celebration of saints, who also adopted the attributes of pagan gods to make them more appealing to potential converts. Other traditions such as costumes and food related celebration were carried over with the holiday with colonials and immigrants, especially the Scots and Irish, influencing celebrations thereafter.
Celebrations of Halloween gradually took on a life of their own, with traditions rising and falling as time went. The 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland, takes place in the months leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. Part of the movie is devoted to the children’s Halloween celebrations, which to modern eyes seem downright delinquent.
The two youngest daughters of the film’s Smith family join the other neighborhood children in almost cult-like celebrations. They start a bonfire, pull dangerous pranks and go around ringing doorbells of neighbors, throwing flour in their faces when they answer and then running away yelling, “I killed him, I killed him!” If based on facts, then to the modern observer the traditions of Halloween one hundred years ago are downright bizarre.
The enduring spirit of Halloween is just one of many appeals of the holiday. Yet, I believe that Halloween takes on a special meaning when it comes to college students. Halloween becomes a celebration of revelry as well as nostalgia, and to many, a jubilee for conquering midterms.
Halloween is one of the most inclusive holidays that exists thanks to both its secular and non-secular roots. Whether it be taking the children of the family out to collect candy and connect with neighbors, or adults taking the opportunity to have a good time and be silly with friends, Halloween is for everyone. Halloween has the capacity to accommodate anyone in their time of celebration.