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Costumes and candy make October 31 popular in the United States, and Americans’ enthusiasm for scary fun is spreading around the world. Writer Helen Huthnance tells us more.
Text and photos by: Helen Huthnance
Country: USA

n the Northern Hemisphere the days are getting shorter, darker, and colder; the leaves have changed from green to red and gold; and many trees have lost their foliage entirely. Autumn is in full swing and winter is fast approaching. The dark and dreary days and cold nights might be the perfect excuse for some to stay in, but for others it’s an exciting time as they prepare for a much beloved holiday: Halloween.

In the 21st century, Halloween has been growing in popularity worldwide, and many feel it is one more American tradition that has been exported abroad. However, Halloween is not originally an American celebration; Americans have just done a great job of commercializing it. Many cultures have days dedicated to celebrating the dead, including hallows (saints) and martyrs.

The word Halloween is a contraction of All Hallow’s Eve, meaning hallowed evening or holy evening. It is the evening before All Hallow’s Day, also known as All Saints’ Day. This is a Christian holiday that is originally believed to have taken place in May, but was moved to October to coincide with the Celtic pagan holiday of Samhain, which is also a celebration of the dead. It has long been a Christian custom to have its holidays coincide with pagan ones in order to stamp out paganism while allowing the locals to continue to celebrate their feasts, but with a new meaning.

Halloween is not an official holiday. Government offices and businesses remain open and public transit services run on regular schedules. But it is a fun celebration, and revelers look forward to it all year. In the U.S., the holiday is particularly popular with children. Many teenagers tend to feel they are too cool to celebrate Halloween and view it as a kids’ holiday, but when they enter university, it once again becomes popular.

Dressing Up

On Halloween, you don’t get presents like at Christmas time, but you do get to dress up as anything you like and get your fill of candy. Halloween costumes were traditionally supposed to be spooky, such as witches, ghosts, and skeletons and later Frankenstein and Dracula. But now you are more likely to see princesses and Transformers walking door to door.

As a child I’d start planning months in advance for my costume. Out would come the sewing machine, swaths of colored cloth, ribbons, cardboard, glitter, and glue so my mom could turn the crazy ideas in my head into reality. Even today I prefer making my own costumes to buying or renting them. I never went for the traditional witch or cat costumes of the time, but instead opted for being a turtle, a bumblebee, and even a tube of Colgate toothpaste one year, complete with a red, plastic garbage bin on my head as the twist-off cap. But my favorite costume of all time wasPrincess Leia from Star Wars. The costume itself was pretty simple, but I’m still amazed at my mom’s prowess in braiding my hair into matching buns on either side of my head. And even more amazed at her unending patience in helping each of her six daughters to have the perfect costume.

Laura McLeod from Seattle, Washington, says her favorite part of Halloween is definitely the clever costumes, especially if people make them themselves. “Mom made me a Southern Belle costume one year, and I repurposed it into a Bride of Frankenstein to go with a friend who went as Frankenstein. But my favorite costume was probably in 2003 when I dressed up as a battered and bruised Statue of Liberty. I made it myself with thrift store and costume shop materials.”

It was quite common in the past for people to make their own costumes. But with Halloween growing in popularity and being celebrated more by adults, costume shops have popped up where you can rent or buy almost any costume you like. You can even order costumes online. With the current popularity of Halloween parties and balls, young adults now outspend children on costumes.

But where did the idea of dressing up for Halloween start? From at least the 16th century onward it was popular in Ireland and Scotland to go guising (going door to door in a disguise) during Halloween. This may have been a tradition whereby people impersonated the AosSí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf. Impersonating these beings could also be a way to protect oneself from them. In the Middle Ages, Christian churches displayed the relics of martyred saints during Allhallowtide, the time between All Hallow’s Eve on October 31st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. Poor churches did not have these relics, and it is claimed that they allowed their parishioners to dress up as saints instead. This may have been another origin for the tradition of dressing up for Halloween.

Wearing a costume is only part of the fun. I asked Victoria Nabb from Atlanta, Georgia, what Halloween meant to her and she responded “Fun! And Candy! Candy is absolutely my favorite part of Halloween. As a kid I would always dress up as Cinderella to go trick-or-treating. As a teenager and even in university I continued to go trick-or-treating. Now that I’m older I don’t go trick-or-treating anymore, but I do go to Halloween parties, where there is plenty of candy.”

The tradition of going house to house asking for treats is believed to have come from Ireland and Scotland. Traditionally households would put out offerings to the AosSí, and later hand them out to those who showed up on their doorsteps dressed as AosSí. Another possibility is that it came from the Christian tradition of souling: groups of soulers would go from parish to parish, begging the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the souls of the givers and their friends.

Going door to door asking for treats, also known as trick-or-treating, did not become popular in the U.S. until the 1930s following a large influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants. But the term trick-or-treat itself seems to be an American invention and didn’t become popular back in Britain until the 1980s.

Some children make out like bandits during Halloween. Laura said that as a child, “trick-or-treating was epic, because all the neighbors liked me and would always have special treats.” Other children may be unlucky and have to contend with their parents hiding all their goodies and rationing them out in the following weeks. I would always gobble mine down that same night and then be jealous of my older sister who had the willpower to save them and would bring them out days and even weeks later to eat with relish while I begged for just a little bite.

Spooky Houses

Decorating your house for Halloween, making it as scary as possible, is also part of the tradition. Homeowners use fake cobwebs and giant spiders, bats, skeletons, ghosts that flutter in the wind, witches flying on broomsticks, bubbling cauldrons, tombstones in the yard, zombies, fake blood, and other spooky items.

Laura says she doesn’t celebrate Halloween anymore, but that she loves turning out the lights and watching her neighbor’s place. “They go all out decorating and draw people from all over; and all the little kids scream and laugh…it’s awesome.”

Jack-o-lanterns are an indispensible part of Halloween decorations. These pumpkins have their insides scooped out and a spooky face carved on one side. A candle is then placed inside and lit when it gets dark. In Ireland and Scotland the turnip was traditionally carved, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which is much softer and larger.

These lanterns may have originally been meant to represent spirits or supernatural beings or perhaps were used to ward off evil spirits. It has also been suggested that they represented Christian souls in purgatory.

People can get quite creative with their lanterns. And as Halloween spreads to more countries where pumpkins may not be readily available, they are finding other fruits or vegetables to carve. One year while living overseas, in Chile, we did not wish to miss out on this tradition, and wound up carving and lighting a Halloween pineapple instead. It may not have been a typical Halloween, but we were still able to celebrate and enjoy it. And the little kids loved it, especially the candy!


● Halloween candy sales average about $2 billion annually in the United States.

● Halloween is the second most commercially successful holiday, behind Christmas.

● Since the 1980s theme parks have held Halloween events.

● Orange and black are Halloween colors because orange is associated with the fall harvest and black is associated with darkness and death.

● Pumpkins also come naturally in white, blue, and green.


Halloween tricks and treats

holiday in the United States and it is spreading to the rest of the world. It is originally a European Christian tradition held in May to celebrate the dead. Later they moved it to October 31 to coincide with the Celtic pagan holiday of Samhain, which is also a celebration of the dead. Halloween is not an official holiday, government offices and businesses remain open.

One of the exciting things about Halloween is dressing up and going trick-or-treating, which means going door to door asking for candy. Costumes are supposed to be spooky, such as witches, ghosts, and skeletons, but in reality people dress up as anything they want, even princesses or Transformers. My favorite costume was Princess Leia of Star Wars.

It is also traditional to decorate your house to make it as scary as possible. Homeowners use fake cobwebs and giant spiders, bats, skeletons, ghosts that flutter in the wind, witches flying on broomsticks, bubbling cauldrons, tombstones in the yard, zombies, fake blood, and other spooky items.

Jack-o-lanterns are an indispensible part of Halloween decorations. To make one you must scoop out the inside of a pumpkin and then carve a spooky face on one side. Place a candle inside and light it when it gets dark. If you have a jack-o-lantern on your front doorstep, it is a sign that trick-or-treaters can knock on your door and ask for candy.



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Halloween tricks and treats



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