Forgive me, dear reader, I’m getting up on the coffin-shaped soapbox.
I love Halloween. I sort of have to – it’s in the paperwork I signed as a child in order to grow up Goth (spoiler: not real paperwork). The Halloween-All Saints’ Day-Thanksgiving season is my favorite time of year. And every year, people ask me a ton of questions about Halloween, the origins, the reasons behind the holiday, etc.
Today, in 2013, Halloween is about candy, horror movies, and awful costumes. It’s Valentine’s Day with a different wardrobe, a creepy creation of the greeting card industry. The All-Mighty Dollar also disgustingly perverts Easter and Christmas, but at least we sincerely try to rescue those holidays in the name of family togetherness, if not actual religion. This year alone, the New York Times estimates that Halloween spending will SLIP 6% to a grand total of $6.9 billion. That’s more money spent on candy corn than on chocolate rabbits. Clearly, the economy runs on candy.
Why is spookiness encouraged one night of the year, and ostracized the other 364? Maybe I missed the memo to only fly the freak flag on the culturally appropriate night? Whatever, it reeks of repression.
What’s especially irritating to me about the modern Halloween is that the holiday has an extensive and thought-provoking history. Halloween’s origins have been highly debated by historians, anthropologists, and folklorists for decades. Currently, the consensus is that it’s the spooky and delicious “You-Got-Your-Peanut-Butter-In-My-Chocolate!” combination of medieval Catholicism and Northern European, particularly Celtic, pagan traditions. That’s right, people. Halloween was a religious holiday. Makes you think twice about that HILARIOUS George Zimmerman costume, right?
The ancient Celts (defined by their speaking a Celtic language) had the holiday of Samhain that fell at the end of October. It was, for them, New Year’s Eve. Samhain was the day that the old year died, just like the world around them once the harvest was done. On that night, the world of the living and the realm of the dead touched, and loved ones or vengeful spirits could cross over. To save themselves from being taken back to the realm of the dead, living Celts would disguise themselves as monsters and ghouls and set out treats for the dead to take, instead. Wear a special frock and put out some cake, works with everybody!
The name Halloween comes from All Hallow’s Eve, the night before the church holiday better known as All Saints’ Day. On that day all the saints, known or unknown, are celebrated. In the beginning centuries of the church, All Saints’ Day was celebrated in May, but it was changed to Nov. 1st (the day after Samhain) in the early 800s by Pope Gregory IV, who probably saw the benefit of putting similar holidays at the same time. The common medieval people had lots of ideas associated with All Saints’ – like the souls of people in Purgatory could come back to visit, or people could only be sorted into the appropriate afterlife on All Saints’ Day, so they wandered from the time they died until All Saints’…some really kooky stuff there, people.
All Saints’ Day is best understood in contrast to Easter. Just as through Christ, all who believe will have life everlasting, All Saints’ reminds us that all who are born and walk the earth will die. You might know it better in its Mexican form, Dia de los Muertos. Hispanic cultures never really got into Halloween. All Saints’ Day practices and worship evolved differently for Europeans than it did for Central and South Americans and it’s ok – that’s the magic of cultural blending.
Hopefully, you’ll understand why I always get a little pissed off this time of year, despite the fact that this is my favorite season. Halloween, in its purest religious sense, Christian or pagan, is a reminder that human life is fleeting, and all of us will drop like the fiery fall foliage. Sure, I’m going to have a party and wear a costume that I made with my grandmother. But while I wear that handmade costume and eat junk with my friends, I’ll remember that we might not ever get the chance to do this again. This could be the last time friends celebrate Halloween. This could be the last year my Granny helps me make my costume. Enjoy your time together and love one another – because Death is coming, and he wants to be taken seriously.