With the crowds gathering on my street for the annual, wacky New York City Halloween parade, it dawned on me that I don't know why we celebrate Halloween! Whatever its origins, there is no question that Halloween has become a cultural phenomenon, at least in the United States. New York is a great place to experience Halloween - where else will you see people dressed as ghouls and goblins sharing a subway with suits intently reading the daily news? Or see children run into a laundromat demanding candy? Even in the uber-intense world of finance, the Halloween spirit pervades. On Friday we had a trading floor "trick-or-treat" for the kids of the company's employees. Things quickly became less stressful as a little girl dressed as a piglet made the candy rounds. So what are the derivations of this collective, uninhibited, fearful joy that is Halloween?
From my cursory research, the most influential contributor to Halloween as we know it is the Old Irish Samhain "end-of-summer" festival. It took place November 1 of each year, and marked the end of the "light" part of the year and the beginning of the "dark" part of the year. With the advent of Christianity, the name of the festival changed to "Hallowmas", meaning All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day celebrates those saints who have died and are in heaven. It is followed (on November 2) by All Souls' Day, which celebrates the dead believers who continue to be stuck in purgatory - those who have not yet made it to heaven. The night preceding Hallowmas became a more pagan commemoration of the dead, and was called "Hallows Eve." Anyone who knows an Irishman's drawl can see how this articulation over time could evolve to "Halloween." A similar celebration called Calan Gaeaf took place on November 1st in Wales to mark the first day of winter. It, too, had dark undertones. One of the Calan Gaeaf customs was "Coelcerth"; apparently families built a fire and wrote their names in stones. If your stone was missing the following morning, you had less than one year to live. The best part about Halloween - trick-or-treating - also came from Britain. Poor people would go door-to-door begging for food, which came to be called "going a-souling." Over time the town children made the rounds, and were given apples and other holiday treats.
The potato famine of the 1800s brought many Irish and their Halloween customs to the United States. The turnips used for lanterns switched to pumpkins, eventually evolving into Jack-O-Lanterns. These Irish customs mixed in with American Colonial stories of witchcraft and also Native American visions of ghosts. The idea of costume themed parties took hold in the US in the 1920s. As I type, the shrill cries from the parade down the street are getting louder and louder. With that, I am going outside to experience what has by now become a uniquely American blend of religion, debauchery, candy, and mystique.