Halloween is a performance of history

Tracing the origins of trick-or-treating

Dressing up for Halloween is rooted in ancient Celtic traditions.
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Today, dressing up in costumes for Halloween is just for fun, but 2,000 years ago in Europe, it was considered a matter of life and death.

Historicists of Halloween trace the holiday’s origin back to the Celtic celebration of the New Year, which they called Samhain—pronounced So-win—which was celebrated November 1.

During the passing of one year to the next, the Celts believed that spirits, demons, and other creatures roamed among us before travelling into the afterlife. To confuse these ghosts and avoid becoming possessed, people dressed up as different animals. They also left food outside of their homes to placate the demons.

In the ninth century, Christianity began to subsume the Celts’ pagan traditions. Eventually, elements of Samhain were incorporated into the Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, which are celebrated back to back on November 1 and November 2.

Festivities in England included going from house to house asking for a confection known as a soul cake. Recipients of these cakes would promise to pray for their neighbour’s deceased loved ones. This practice was called ‘souling.’

In Scotland and Ireland, children did something similar called ‘guising’ where they would disguise themselves as ghosts and ghouls and perform some type of trick—be it a song or a poem—in exchange for a treat: hence the name trick-or-treating.

Centuries later in the 1840s, Halloween arrived in North America when Irish immigrants flooded into the United States and Canada, fleeing the potato famine. It had been celebrated in a limited capacity by some British settlers before the 19th century, but the arrival of the Irish made the festivities commonplace.

Nowadays, children and adults still dress up for Halloween, but the old meaning is gone. Instead of a superstitious warding off of demons or even a commemoration of the dead, Halloween is a day to watch scary movies, dress up, and gorge yourself on candy—or in the case of University students, booze.

What people tend to not realize when they dress up for Halloween, whether they intend to trick-or-treat or party, is that they’re engaging in a performative act of history and carrying on a practice that people centuries ago took seriously.

As with Christmas, Halloween is a secularized holiday now almost entirely divorced from its religious roots. It’s also highly commercialized. On average, Americans buy about 300,000 tons of candy during the week of Halloween.

In addition, costumes are now based on popular characters from film and television rather than generic evil spirits, and scary movies are a staple of October. Halloween is just a great time to wear something spooky or silly and to embrace fear.

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