Halloween’s origins stem from early Celtic festivals, over 2000 years ago; it was originally a pagan holiday, the day which officially meant the end of summer and the beginning of winter, cold weather and rigorous weather conditions in general. Winter, as we all know, is also associated with death.
On 31st October, they celebrated Samhain (today known as Halloween, although no one knows how such a drastic semantic change occurred), a holiday which brought back the ghosts of the departed into our mortal coil. A couple of thousands of years later, the Roman Empire sported a violent takeover of the majority of Celtic territory. You know, wars, conquering, armies, blood-spilling, all that game. And thus the Romans combined a few of their holidays with those of the Celts, merging both their respective commemorations of the dead.
Some 600 years later, on 13th May, Pope Boniface IV established the Catholic holiday known as All Martyrs Day in honour of all Christian martyrs. Later on, Pope Gregory III decided to include saints as well as martyrs in the holiday, and also moving it from 13th May to 1st November.
Year 1000 saw the shift of All Souls’ Day (a holiday to honour the dead; formerly All Martyrs Day) from 1st November to the 2nd. Many people today believe that the Catholic Church tried to replace the Celtic Festival of the dead with a similar Church-holiday.
People celebrated All Souls’ Day by lighting up huge bonfires, throwing flamboyant parades and dressing up in various costumes: angels, devils, demons, saints, witches. Soon thereafter, the day before All Souls’ Day became known as All-Hallows Eve and, later on, Halloween.
Not to bore you with an overly detailed history lesson, let’s skip about a 1000 years into the future. The Western world of today celebrates Halloween by trick-or-treating (begging for candy from strangers, something we sternly warn our children against doing), dressing up and getting drunk (the day when we can become whoever we want to be; made-up, overly-clothed, dressed in skimpy outfits, with masks on our faces, the one day when we can exchange our own everyday personalities for something else, achieving the relief and mild catharsis that full anonymity brings), throwing toilet paper at things (could be put to much better use), egging other people’s houses (again, scrambled eggs) and carving out horrifying faces out of pumpkins that never deserved it.
Now let’s talk for a moment about how trick-or-treating became a thing. Ireland and England started the traditions of dressing up and going door to door begging for money, food or sweets. Eventually, it evolved into what the modern person today knows as trick-or-treating. On the verge of the 20th century, Americans also tried to create a more neighbourly and community-oriented holiday, and step back from talk of ghosts, demons, witches and various superstitions. This also resulted in Halloween losing all its religious connotations. By the 20s and 30s of the 21st century, Halloween had turned into a secular holiday with an emphasis on community. However, there were still traces of vandalism from the earlier celebrations.
Some 20 years later, by the 1950s, cities and municipalities have successfully eradicated most (if not all) cases of Halloween vandalism, turning the holiday into a celebration suitable for young people.
Today, Halloween is a $7 billion dollar industry, profit-wise overtaken only by Christmas, the country’s largest commercial holiday. You have your pumpkins to buy, your presents, your outfits, makeup, drinks, party accessories, etc., and, obviously, there’s quite a lot of money in that. Halloween is a holiday that, somewhere from within its ancient roots, still serves as a reminder of the inevitability of death, even with all the commercialized, joyous, candy-ridden overtones. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Even though most people don’t see it that way now, there is a certain undertone to Halloween that actually promotes (or at least reminds people of) a rational view of human mortality. Naturally, you might want to hold off with any pedagogical methods or teachings of death until your child is old enough to fully understand it. Until then, you might want to keep Halloween overflowing with pumpkins and candy and lots and lots of smiles.