You hear a knock at your door and open it to witness ghouls running around outside while bonfires burn nearby. “Trick or treat!” they yell as more of a declaration than a request. So you give them candy. But why?
Halloween is an ages old tradition, in America.
It just isn’t really an American tradition, as much as we have co-opted the value right out of it. The Western World is a funny place where we often times grab onto symbols we like while at the same time ignorantly discarding the actual message behind the tradition.
Do you wear a cross necklace from time to time? Are you a Christian or do you just like the simple minimalist shape of it as jewelry, completely ignoring what message the cross represents? That is more or less how America celebrates Halloween: putting it on ignorantly while ignoring the real history that symbol represents. Before I unpack the symbolism and history of Halloween, let’s take a look at a few more co-opted scenarios that seem like obvious blunders.
In Australia’s City of Greater Dandenong, in an ignorant attempt of multiculturalism, the city leadership did a PR release encouraging non-muslim women to put on a “hijab” head covering in a confusing show of cultural solidarity. The problem: muslims and non-muslim alike were aware of the very real history of female cultural oppression symbolized by the forced wearing of the hijab. The backlash was obvious and massive. Most people were generally not ignorant and so were not interested in adopting this particular symbolism. Regardless of the seemingly well-intentioned hopes of the city leadership who were ignoring the history and hoping people would bandwagon ignorantly into co-opting the symbolism of the hijab without respect to its very real history, people made a value decision to not play dumb and tagentially affiliate with the history.
For one last example, take a look at the below video of someone ignorantly claiming and defending their modern adoption of a hairstyle as ground to accuse someone else of ignorantly co-opting their race.
The kid in the dreadlocks is correct that egyptian culture was likely one of two cultures who wore dreadlocks first (possible second only to India). It is also true that Germanic Vikings wore dreadlocks, the point being dreadlocks seem to have a long history across many different cultures none of which seemed to have had a problem with either being co-opted or caring about owning the tradition. Regardless, this scenario outlines the fact that people ignorantly adopt and co-opt and at some point personally identify with some tradition, and often it has nothing to do with the actual origin or symbolism inherent attached to the actual origin.
Before I go into the history of Halloween, I would like to ask, should we care about the history and traditions associated with symbols we aesthetically enjoy? To answer in a phrase: willful ignorance is stupid. I feel like most people would not start wearing a swastika symbol, like that of the Nazis, but claim that they wear it because "it looked like a cool pinwheel to them." BRAIN CHECK: There is no real ongoing Nazi political movement in Austria or Germany (there are groups that have co-opted the symbol, mind you, but the original movement is long dead.) And no rational person would want to wear that symbol simply because of the real history wrapped around it, regardless of it’s ongoing status.
So now we have Halloween. It’s history is old and long dead, but the symbolism is real. Let’s take a look a what we do today and see how it is symbolic of the involved history.
First, generally speaking the date is affiliated with a Celtic tradition, when "spirits" would walk the earth and either terrorize or tell of the future. The spirits were seen as both helpful and harmful to the druid priests, but the general population did everything they could to avoid coming into contact with those spirits for fear of provoking terror or harm to their family, livestock and crops. The holiday was considered a spiritual holiday and originally called Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) . Originally, it was celebrated by the Celts, but today it is celebrated by Celtic neopagans and Wiccans worldwide. Yep, halloween is a religious holiday, whether you knew it, like it or not.
Tradition: Dressing up
Today, people (mostly children at the encouragement of their parents) dress up in costumes and go to school, work and parties. Originally, the Celtic community would dress in ghoulish costumes in hopes to fool the demons and be left alone, hoping they could avoid the aforementioned terror or harm from sundown October 31 to sunup November 1. The symbolism in dressing up is about making human efforts at avoiding the torment of demons.
Giving out candy
Today, kids show up knocking on your door declaring, “Trick or treat!” to get some candy. Originally, candy became the co-opted symbol to replace pagan sacrifices on huge community bonfires. Said another way, people wanted to avoid the demons tormenting their families, animals or crops, so they would make an offering of crops and animals from their livestock and toss them on those bonfires, to appease the demons. The act of your child knocking on the doors of neighbors for candy symbolizes demons demanding appeasement to avoid torment ( replace “trick or treat” with “I am going to torment you if you don’t sacrifice to me!!!!”)
Today, families and schools carve faces into pumpkins and put them outside their front door with a light inside it, like a candle. There are medieval traditions in the Catholic church that co-opt the purpose of the candle-lit pumpkin (or originally gourd), but the oldest story is about a old drunkard named Jack who cut scheming deals with the devil and eventually upon his death, God would not allow Jack into heaven, so the devil damned him to roam the dark of the earth with a hollowed out gourd lit by a single hot coal. The symbolism of carving faces into pumpkins comes from this story of “Jack of the lantern” later shortened to “Jack O’Lantern.” So when we carve faces into pumpkins we are symbolizing the story of a devil-curse drunkard barred from heaven roaming the earth for etenity.
What a lovely holiday, am I right?
Sign me up. Have you ever told your kids the actual non-santa Christmas story (the one about Mary and Joseph and Jesus in the manger)? Talk about a beautiful story. Now, imagine sitting your kids down and telling them the real story of Halloween. Do you think your kids will be confused about why you want them to dress up like a princess to symbolize the historical concern of tormenting demons, demand candy from their neighbors symbolizing appeasement of those same demons, and carve pumpkins to celebrate a shifty alcoholic who God forsook and the devil cursed?
What should one do?
I say we take a note from the people in that city in Australia. Regardless of the seemingly innocent activities, we know what those activities represent and symbolize. And it ain't pretty. It just an awful story and we are addicted to it for goofy selfish reasons. Either we lack the imagination to simply schedule costume parties not associated with demons at other times in the year because it is just easier to bandwagon and have fun dressing up with your friends, or we are afraid our kids will throw a full-tilt public social blow-out fit if we tell them we are not going to go play demon and demand appeasement via candy from the neighbors.
People were actually scared for their lives and livelihood during this Celtic tradition. And yet we have turned it into a kids holiday. It isn’t about overcoming the fear of those historical symbols. We are literally and ignorantly celebrating the worst parts of those historical stories. I would laugh, but it’s tragic.
What other horrifying terroristic events should we grab from modern history and start throwing candy parties about? Or does that seem irrational and insane? We would never throw candy parties on september 11, with traditions where kids dress up like arabs and threaten to crash a plane into their homes if we don’t give them candy, right? That would be crazy and insensitive on too many levels. Nobody celebrates like that. Except, well… Halloween.