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Halloween is an observance celebrated on the night of October 31, most notably by children dressing in costumes and going door-to-door collecting candy. It is celebrated in much of the Western world, though most common in the United States, Puerto Rico, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada and sometimes in Australia and New Zealand. Irish, Scots and other immigrants brought older versions of the tradition to North America in the 19th century. Most other Western countries have embraced Halloween as a part of American pop culture in the late 20th century.

The term Halloween comes from hallow and eve, as it is the evening before "All Hallows Day". In Ireland, the name was Hallow Eve and this name is still used by some older people. Halloween was also sometimes called All Saints' Eve. The holiday was a day of religious festivities in various northern European pagan traditions, until it was appropriated by Christian missionaries and given a Christian interpretation. In Mexico and Belgium, November 2nd, the day after All Hallows Day, is the Day of the Dead.

Halloween is also called Pooky Night in some parts of Ireland, presumably named after the púca, a mischievous spirit.

In Great Britain and Ireland in particular, the pagan Celts celebrated the Day of the Dead on All Hallows Day (1st November). The spirits supposedly rose from the dead and, in order to attract them, food was left on the doors. To scare off the evil spirits, the Celts wore masks. When the Romans invaded Britain, they embellished the tradition with their own, which is both a celebration of the harvest and of honoring the dead. Very much later, these traditions were transported to the United States and Canada and other places in the New World.

Halloween is sometimes associated with the occult. Many European cultural traditions hold that Halloween is one of the "liminal" times of the year when the spirit world can make contact with the natural world and when magic is most potent (see, for example, Catalan mythology about witches).

Anoka, Minnesota, USA, the self-proclaimed "Halloween Capital of the World," celebrates with a large civic parade.

Salem, Massachusetts, USA, also has laid claim to the title "Halloween Capital of the World," though Salem has tried to separate itself from its history in the subject of witchcraft. Despite that, the city does see a great deal of tourism surrounding the Salem witch trials, especially around Halloween.

Jack-o'-lanterns may be carved with funny faces.

Halloween's theme is spooky or scary things particularly involving death, magic, or mythical monsters. Commonly-associated Halloween characters include ghosts, ghouls, witches, bats, black cats, owls, spiders, goblins, zombies, skeletons and demons, as well as certain fictional figures like Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. Homes are often decorated with these symbols around Halloween.

Black and orange are the traditional colors of Halloween. In modern Halloween images and products, purple, green, and red are also prominent.

Elements of the autumn season, such as pumpkins and scarecrows, are also reflected in symbols of Halloween.

The jack-o'-lantern, a carved vegetable lit by a candle inside, is one of Halloween's most prominent symbols. In Britain and Ireland, a turnip was and sometimes still is used, but immigrants to America quickly adopted the pumpkin because it was more readily available; additionally, it is much larger and easier to carve. Many families that celebrate Halloween carve a pumpkin into a frightening or comical face and place it on their home's doorstep after dark. The practice was originally intended to frighten away evil spirits or monsters.


Trick-or-treating and guising

The main event of modern US-style Halloween is trick-or-treating, in which children dress up in costume disguises and go door-to-door in their neighborhood, ringing each doorbell and yelling "trick or treat!" . This is a watered-down version of the older tradition of guising in Ireland and Scotland . The occupants of the house (who might themselves dress in a scary costume) will then hand out small candies, miniature chocolate bars or other treats. Some American homes will use sound effects and fog machines to help set a spooky mood. Other house decoration themes (that are less scary) are used to entertain younger visitors. Children can often accumulate many treats on Halloween night, filling up entire pillow cases or shopping bags.

In Ireland, great bonfires were lit throughout the breadth of the land. Young children in their guises were gladly received by the neighbors with some 'fruit, apples and nuts' for the 'Halloween Party', whilst older male siblings played innocent pranks on bewildered victims.

In Scotland, children or guisers are more likely to recite "The sky is blue, the grass is green, may we have our Hallowe'en" instead of "trick or treat!". They visit neighbours in groups and must impress the members of the houses they visit with a song, poem, trick, joke or dance in order to earn their treats. Traditionally, nuts, oranges, apples and dried fruit were offered, though sometimes children would also earn a small amount of cash, usually a sixpence. Very small children often take part, for whom the experience of performing can be more terrifying than the ghosties outside.

Tricks play less of a role in modern Halloween, though Halloween night is often marked by vandalism such as soaping windows, egging houses or stringing toilet paper through trees. Before indoor plumbing was so widespread, tipping over or displacing outhouses was a popular form of intimidation.

Typical Halloween costumes have traditionally been monsters such as vampires, ghosts, witches, and devils. In 19th-century Scotland and Ireland the reason for wearing such fearsome (and non-fearsome) costumes was the belief that since the spirits that were abroad that night were essentially intent on doing harm, the best way to avoid this was to fool the spirits into believing that you were one of them. In recent years, it has become common for costumes to be based on themes other than traditional horror, such as dressing up as a character from a TV show or movie, or choosing a recognizable face from the public sphere, such as a politician (in 2004, for example, George W. Bush and John F. Kerry were both popular costumes in America). In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, for example, costumes of firefighters, police officers, and United States military personnel became popular among children. In 2004, an estimated 2.15 million children in the United States were expected to dress up as Spider Man, the year's most popular costume. [1]

"'Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF" has become a common sight during Halloween in North America. Started by UNICEF in 1950, the program involves the distribution of small boxes by schools to trick-or-treaters, in which they can solicit small change donations from the houses they visit. It is estimated that children have collected more than $119 million for UNICEF since its inception.

BIGresearch conducted a survey for the National Retail Federation in the US and found that 53.3% of consumers planned to buy a costume for Halloween 2005, spending $38.11 on average (up 10 dollars from last year). An estimate of $3.3 billion was made for the holiday spending.

A child usually "grows out of" trick-or-treating by his or her teenage years. Trick-or-treating by teenagers is accepted, but generally ridiculed with genial ribbing by those handing out candy. Teenagers and adults instead often celebrate Halloween with costume parties, staying home to give out candy, listening to halloween music, or scaring people.

Games and other activities

There are several games traditionally associated with Halloween parties. The most common is dooking or bobbing for apples, in which apples float in a tub or a large basin of water; the participants must use their teeth to remove an apple from the basin. Another variant involves kneeling on a chair, holding a fork between the teeth and trying to drop the fork into them. Another common game involves hanging up treacle or syrup-coated scones by strings; these must be eaten without using hands while they remain attached to the string, an activity which inevitably leads to a very sticky face.

Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In Puicíní (pronounced "pooch-eeny"), a game played in Ireland, a blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled and the seated person then chooses one by touch. The contents of the saucer determine the person's life for the following year. A saucer containing earth means someone known to the player will die during the next year, a saucer containing water foretells travel, a coin means new wealth, a bean means poverty, etc. In 19th-century Ireland, young women placed slugs in saucers sprinkled with flour. The wriggling of the slugs and the patterns subsequently left behind on the saucers were believed to portray the faces of the women's future spouses.

In North America, unmarried women were frequently told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die before they married, a skull would appear. The custom was widespread enough to be commemorated on greeting cards from the late nineteenth century.

The telling of ghost stories and viewing of horror films are common fixtures of Halloween parties. Television specials with a Halloween theme, usually aimed at children, are commonly aired on or before the holiday while new horror films are often released theatrically before the holiday to take advantage of the atmosphere.


Because the holiday comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest, Candy Apples (also known as toffee, taffy or caramel apples) are a common treat at Halloween. They are made by rolling whole apples in a sticky sugar syrup, and sometimes then rolling them in nuts. At one time candy apples were a common treat given to children, but this practice rapidly waned after widespread rumors that some individuals were embedding items like pins and razor blades in the apples that they would pass out to children. While there is evidence of such incidents occurring they are very rare and have never resulted in any serious injuries (see Snopes article on the subject). Nonetheless, many parents were under the assumption that the practice was common. At the peak of this hysteria, some hospitals were offering to x-ray children's Halloween haul at no cost in order to look for such items. Almost all of the very few Halloween candy poisoning (as opposed to tainting) incidents on record involved parents who poisoned their own children's candy, while there are occasional reports of kids sticking needles in their own candy (and that of other children) more in an effort to get attention than cause any harm (again, see Snopes for details of individual incidents). Yet the paranoia has continued unabated mostly because of the news media's misinformation and tendency to exaggerate threats - especially when children are involved.

A Halloween custom which has survived unchanged to this day in Ireland is the baking (or more often nowadays the purchase) of a barmbrack (Irish "báirín breac"). This is a light fruit cake into which a plain ring is placed before baking. It is said that whoever finds this ring will find his or her true love during the following year.

Other foods associated with the holiday:

  • candy corn
  • bonfire toffee (in the UK)
  • hot apple cider
  • roasted pumpkin seeds
  • "fun-sized" or individually wrapped pieces of small candy, typically in Halloween colors of orange, and brown/black.

Cultural history

Main article: History and folklore of Halloween

Christian festival

Pope Boniface IV established an anniversary dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs when he consecrated the Pantheon on May 13, 609 (or 610). This Christian feast day was moved to November 1st from May 13th by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century in order to mark the dedication of the All Saints Chapel in Rome--establishing November 1st as All Saints Day and October 31st as All Hallows' Eve. Initially this change of date only applied to the diocese of Rome, but was extended to the rest of Christendom a century later by Pope Gregory IV in an effort to standardize liturgical worship.

The feast day of All Souls Day, celebrated to commemorate those souls condemned temporarily to Purgatory, was inaugurated by St Odilo, at the time the abbott of the influential monastery at Cluny, as 2 November in 998.

Halloween's Origin: Celtic observation of Samhain

According to what can be reconstructed of the beliefs of the ancient Celts, the new year began around November 1 or on a New Moon near that date, a day referred to in modern Gaelic as Samhain ("Sow-in" or alternatively "Sa-ven", meaning: End of the summer). Just as sundown meant the start of a new day, shorter days signified the start of the new year; therefore the harvest festival began every year on the night of preceding the autumn new year date. After the adoption of the Roman calendar with its fixed months, the date began to be celebrated independently of the Moon's phases.

As November 1 is the first day of the new year, the day also meant the beginning of winter, which the Celts often associated with human death. The Celts also believed that on October 31 (the night before the new year), the boundary separating the dead from the living became blurred. (There is a rich and unusual myth system at work here; the spirit world, the residence of the "Sidhe," as well as of the dead, was accessible through burial mounds. These mounds opened at two times during the year, making the beginning and end of summer highly spiritually resonant.)

The Celts' survival during the cold harsh winters, depended on the prophecies of their priests or Druids. They believed that the presence of spirits would aid in the priests' abilities to make future predictions.

The exact customs observed in each Celtic region differ, but they generally involved the lighting of bonfires and the reinforcement of boundaries, across which malicious spirits might cross and threaten the community.

Like most observances around this season, warmth and comfort were emphasized, indulgence was not. Stores of preserved food were needed to last through the winter, not for parties.

Norse Elven Blót

In the old Norse religion an event believed to occur around the same time of the year as Halloween was the álfablót (elven blót), which involved sacrifices to the elves and the blessing of food. The elves were powers connected to the ancestors, and it can be assumed that the blót related to a cult of the ancestors. The álfablót is also celebrated in the modern revival of Norse religion, Ásatrú.

Halloween customs

Observance of Halloween faded in the South of England from the 17th century onwards, being replaced by the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5. However it remained popular in Scotland, Ireland and the North of England. It is only in the last decade that it again became popular in the south of England, but as an entirely Americanized version.

The custom survives most accurately on the Island of Ireland, where the last Monday of October is a public holiday. All schools close for the following week for mid-term, commonly called the Halloween Break. As a result Ireland and Northern Ireland are the only countries where children never have school on Halloween and are therefore free to celebrate it in the ancient and time-honored fashion.

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have evolved from the European custom called souling, similar to the wassailing customs associated with Yule. On November 2, All Souls' Day, beggars would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes" - square pieces of bread with currants. Christians would promise to say prayers on behalf of dead relatives helping the soul's passage to heaven. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits at the Samhain. Template:See

In Celtic parts of western Brittany, Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou. Kornigou are cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his "cuckold" horns as he returns to his kingdom in the Otherworld.

"Punkie Night"

"Punkie Night" is observed on the last Thursday in October in the village of Hinton St. George in the county of Somerset in England. On this night, children carry lanterns made from hollowed-out mangel-wurzels (a kind of beet; in modern days, pumpkins are used) with faces carved into them. They bring these around the village, collecting money and singing the punkie song. Punkie is derived from pumpkin or punk, meaning tinder.

Though the custom is only attested over the last century, and the mangel-wurzel itself was introduced into English agriculture in the late 18th century, "Punkie Night" appears to be much older even than the fable that now accounts for it. The story goes that the wives of Hinton St. George went looking for their wayward husbands at the fair held nearby at Chiselborough, the last Thursday in October, but first hollowed out mangel wurzels in order to make lanterns to light their way. The drunken husbands saw the eerie lights, thought they were "goolies" (the restless spirits of children who had died before they were baptized), and fled in terror. Children carry the punkies now. The event has spread since about 1960 to the neighboring village of Chiselborough.

Sources: on-line report from the Western Gazette and a National Geographic radio segment. Chiselborough Fair is memorialized by Fair Place in the village. The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868) reported that there was "a fair for horses and cattle on the last Thursday in October."

"Mischief Night"

The night before Halloween, known alternately survey as "Devil's Night", "Mischief Night", "Mizzie Night", "Gate Night", "Cabbage Night", "Mat Night", or "Goosie Night" is often associated with pranks or destructive activities performed by adolescents. Some of the acts range from minor vandalism to theft (e.g. of door mats - thus the name "Mat Night" in some areas), or even arson. Many youths involved in mischief night would be considered too old for traditional trick-or-treating. The most common wrong-doing is "T.P.ing", in which people's houses, lawns, and trees are covered in toilet paper streamers.

In parts of Northern England, "Mischievous Night" occurs on the 4th of November, the night before Bonfire Night(associated to Bonfire night because the last phases of the plot were coming together). It is celebrated in the same way, although minor vandalism often includes fireworks, which appear in shops in Britain around this time for legitimate reasons - to set off alongside bonfires on the following night.

Religious viewpoints

The majority of Christians ascribe no doctrinal significance to Halloween, treating it as a purely secular entity devoted to celebrating imaginary spooks and handing out candy. The secular celebration of Halloween may loom larger in contemporary imagination than does All Saints' Day.

The mingling of Christian and pagan traditions in the development of Halloween, and its real or assumed preoccupation with evil and the supernatural, have left many modern Christians uncertain of how they should react towards the holiday. Some fundamentalist and evangelical along with many Eastern Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jewish believers consider Halloween a pagan or Satanic holiday, and refuse to allow their children to participate. In some areas, complaints from fundamentalist Christians that the schools were endorsing a pagan religion have led the schools to stop distributing UNICEF boxes at Halloween. Another response among conservative evangelicals in recent years has been the use of Hell houses, which attempt make use of Halloween as an opportunity for evangelism.

Other Christians, however, continue to connect the holiday with All Saints Day. Some modern Christian churches commonly offer a fall festival or harvest-themed alternative to Halloween celebrations. Still other Christians hold the view that the holiday is not Satanic in origin or practice and that it holds no threat to the spiritual lives of children: being taught about death and mortality actually being a valuable life lesson.

Further reading

  • Diane C. Arkins, Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear, Pelican Publishing Company (2000). 96 pages. ISBN 1565547128
  • Diane C. Arkins, Halloween Merrymaking: An Illustrated Celebration Of Fun, Food, And Frolics From Halloweens Past, Pelican Publishing Company (2004). 112 pages. ISBN 158980113X
  • Phyllis Galembo, Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade, Harry N. Abrams (2002). 128 pages. ISBN 0810932911
  • Jean Markale, The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark Half of the Year (translation of Halloween, histoire et traditions), Inner Traditions (2001). 160 pages. ISBN 0892819006
  • Lisa Morton, The Halloween Encyclopedia, McFarland & Company (2003). 240 pages. ISBN 078641524X
  • Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press (2002). 198 pages. ISBN 0195146913
  • Jack Santino (ed.), Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, University of Tennessee Press (1994). 280 pages. ISBN 0870498134

See also

External links

Preschoolers in Halloween costumes

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