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  • Nicole Sherwin

The Very Un-American History Of Halloween

Like most white things in America, Halloween is not native at all.

Source: Den of Geek

This segment is from the podcast episode 'I Don't Know How To Say This, But..." Listen here or where you get your pods.

In the US, Halloween is an $8.8 billion dollar industry. Their children froth candy and the adults froth a pumpkin spice latte, which, what even is that? Personally, as a Melbourne coffee snob, I find the very concept highly offensive. But for some reason in Australia, we’re more desperate than ex-bachie contestants trying to bring back Bachelor in Paradise to get amongst the Halloween hype (probably the free candy). Which, I dunno, I feel like we just don’t need the increased disposable products and consumerism, but that's not what Halloween has always been about. So wtf is this American holiday so that we’re so keen to get a piece of?

Well for starters, it’s not even American. Like most white things in America, it's not native.

I put a spell on you. Source: GIPHY

Halloween’s origins date back over 2000 years ago to the Ancient Celtic Pagans in Ireland, Scotland and Wales with a festival called Samhain (sow-win). Their calendar was divided into two halves - the light half and the dark half. Samhain marked the end of summer, and the commencement of the dark half. It was celebrated from Oct 31st - Nov 1st. The celebrants believed that during the night of the 31st, the barriers between the physical and spiritual world break down. This is how the Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus were able to come back for ‘one night only.’

A lot of the traditions have been lost over time, but feasting, dressing up and hollowing out pumpkins were all part of this festival where they would try to connect with recently passed loved ones and encourage then to re-join the land of the living. If they were bad spirits, they lit a bonfire so they could fuck right back off to where they came from. In my head, I’m basically picturing Outlander (which I know is like 1700 years later) and they’re all drinking a lot of Guinness.

Because primitive, ancient people were also vicious and superstitious, which you may recall from the episode ‘the totally cooked histories behind modern wedding traditions'. They sacrificed animals to the spirits. They would also prank each other and blame it on the spirits. Remember, these people didn’t really have science and like 1500 years later, witch hunting would be as rich a job as a brain surgeon today so you know...gotta get your kicks somehow.

Source: GIPHY

In the ancient world, people liked to conquer shit. So in 43BC, the Romans came and conquered most of the Celtics land, but the Catholics are masters of ‘change nearly everything to suit us, but keep just enough to stop you from revolting.’ Like in Peru, where guinea pigs are sacred, so when the Spanish conquered, they let them keep guinea pigs, so they have paintings of The Last Supper but they’re eating guinea pig. Likely story.

Different 'All Saints' Source: GIPHY

Celtic traditions and pagan traditions were repressed, but not eliminated. The Pope was like, let’s take the idea, but call it All Saints Day and instead of honouring pagan gods and spirits, let’s honour Christian saints and martyr figures. So he called it All Saints Day. Or Hallow Mass, which translates to ‘Day of the Saints’.

Like those fun people who celebrate their birthday for a whole week, the Catholics also like an extensive celebration and love a night before feast. So the night before was called ‘All Hallows Eve.’ If it was in Australia at this point, it would have become Halloween in about three seconds flat because we’re world leaders in shortening words.

But it actually wasn’t until 1785 it became Halloween, when some poet, Robert Burns, called it that in a poem. And remember, at this point we’re still in the British isles. The US had whiffs of this, but the protestants who conquered the US banned Halloween because it was 'too catholic'.

Then mid 19th century, the Potato Famine happened and the Irish flocked to the US like a Black Friday Sale. With them, they brought their All Saints Day traditions including - bobbing for apples and playing tricks, all while wearing masks ( so they couldn’t be seen, not cos of Covid).

America is nothing if not a land of extremes. Extreme lack of gun control, extreme lack of healthcare, extreme right-wing politics. So in keeping with the national flavour, they took Halloween way too far in the 1930s. Tricking actually just became vandalism and store owners would bribe them with candy to stop the tricks.

Source: GIPHY

So out of that grew ‘trick or treat.' Children would dress in costumes, but have to perform music or jokes to get the treat. Then we have an economic boom and technological growth, which exacerbates the Halloween evolution over the last 100 years or so. Candy manufacturers get their mitts in the game, the invention of TV gives us Halloween specials, then cinema in the 50s gets involved and we have Halloween movies. Retailers, the internet, Starbucks and now we have a mass cultural phenomenon that it is today.

Thirsty for more? Listen to a new podcast episode every Tuesday.


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