I’m running out of ways to say that Halloween is not a night, it’s a season. To some people it’s a state of mind, but I am not one of those. That Halloween does leave, and leaves you wanting more, is what makes it special.
Even the Dia de los Muertos celebration is a misnomer. It starts on Halloween night and ends on November 2nd. They have the right idea; I just stretch that into two months.
Halloween is a Frankenstein’s monster of a holiday, which is quite unique among the American set. It was originally Samhain (yeah, it’s pronounced “saw-wen”, just so you know) – the Celtic festival honoring the harvest and the end of Summer. When the Christians came along and started seizing power from the Pagans in Europe, they moved their All Saint’s Day (originally in the Spring) to, you guessed it, October 31st, to divert people from Samhain. November 1st became All Hallows Day, so people started calling the night of the 31st All Hallows Even’, shortened to Hallowe’en. That’s why your grandma probably still spells it with the apostrophe.
Those early Halloweens ended up mashing together traditions and symbols from both the Pagan and Christian festivals. As time went on, the holiday evolved into something quite different. The Jack O Lantern is an American adaptation of the Stingy Jack fairy tale – which originally involved a turnip and a smoldering coal. We changed it to the much more convenient pumpkin-and-candle. Trick or treating is a more recent development, possibly originating from the tradition of offerings to the dead, but in practice a way to bribe neighborhood kids not to vandalize your house as a Halloween prank.
Costumes stem from the idea that on All Hallows Eve, the barrier that separates the realms of the dead and the living is easily passed. One should dress up as ghosts and spirits in order to blend in with the dead and throw them off your trail. If you haven’t ever done a Google image search of Halloween costumes from the 30’s and 40’s, prepare to be freaked out. Rest assured, dressing up as superheroes and video game characters is a modern thing. Those original costumes were ghastly.
If I had to sum up what Halloween night itself is all “about” today, I would have to say community. Other holidays tend to emphasize family togetherness, or perhaps partying and drinking (this is an American perspective of course). But no other holiday encourages parents and children to directly interact with their neighbors, even strangers you never actually knew. Halloween decorations are more than just festive – they’re invitations. They indicate that your house is open for trick or treating business. In the suburbs, the level of trick or treating activity is a pretty solid indicator of the togetherness and vibrance of the neighborhood. That’s why trunk or treating (in an area where traditional trick or treating still happens) is such a disappointing thing. It undercuts the sense of community trust and unity.
For the individual, it’s about creating memories. You may not remember every Halloween costume you ever had, or every trick or treating excursion, but no doubt you remember a few legendary ones. I still remember the time we came upon a garage haunt where a guy with a chainsaw dropped down from the ceiling at the end. It inspired the vow to one day create my own Halloween haunt, which I did for a few years. No doubt at least a few of the kids who went through it will remember it forever, and hopefully make their own one day.
The average kid only gets a handful of memorable trick or treating nights – 10 max by my reckoning. If you have children, you owe it to them to help create those memories. And if not, hell, just walk around your neighborhood on Halloween night and soak in the atmosphere. There’s nothing in the world like it. If you don’t live somewhere with good trick or treating, go drive somewhere that does. Every major city has somewhere good. If you love Halloween, you’ll be right back into your childhood shoes again. And that, fellow grownups, is what the whole season is all about.
Bonfires burning bright
Pumpkin faces in the night
I remember Halloween