Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 10/31/11

America is especially adept at turning religious or national events into massive commercial spectacles.  Christmas starts in November here.  Somehow, Easter is now intimately tied to rabbits, in real, chocolate, and marshmallow varieties.  Thanksgiving is more about the discount shopping deals that occur the day after it, as opposed to, well, giving thanks, or acknowledging that we basically plowed over the Native American population so that we could have turkey every year.

Halloween is yet another day of celebration that has become something far removed from what it was originally, and each year, the parties, parades, and most glaringly, the costumes, become more and more ridiculous.

Guest post by Isabella Woods


Modern-day Halloween borrows traditions from multiple Christian and pagan rituals.  The two primary holidays from which it is most clearly derived are the Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Christian All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.  Some historians also point to elements from the ancient Roman festivals of Pomona and Parentalia, as well.

In short, it is a bit of a mish-mash.  Samhain was a celebration of the end of the summer primarily in Ireland and Scotland.  It was dedicated to securing food for the winter to come.  It was also felt to be a day in which the division between the living and the dead was at its most thin.  Fires were lit, and sacrifices, some animal, and possibly some human, were made.  All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were celebrated on the first and second days of November.  These days were set aside to honor the saints and pray for the dead.  The name Halloween, came into existence in the 16th Century in Scotland.  The holiday did not take hold in the US until the 19th Century, when Irish and Scottish populations began to move to the US in large numbers.  Until then, the largely Puritan US population celebrated very little.  It did not become a part of mass culture until the early 20th Century, however.

Traditional Halloween

Just as Halloween is grabbed from multiple sources, so are its symbols.  The imagery of the day comes from horror stories, gothic tales, poetry, myths, legends, and other flights of fancy.  Interestingly, pumpkin carving was an American development, as pumpkins were simply easier to work with and more readily available than the traditional turnip.  Carving pumpkins was also a fall tradition that was not solely relegated to Halloween.  Orange and black have emerged as the Halloween colors, but were not originally associated with it.

As the Halloween “craze” has swept around the world, the element that has seemed to have garnered the most attention, is that of the tradition of “guising” or dressing up to go ask for food, also known as trick or treating.  Depending on what country you were in, guising was either a time when the poor were allowed to beg from door to door for food, asking for prayers on All Souls’ Day; a day for going from door to door performing for your neighbors, similar to the tradition of wassailing, with the reward for performance being food; or a children’s celebration involving dressing up and either receiving treats, or doing something mildly naughty, but ultimately good hearted.

We have strayed from those three traditions in sentiment, if not action.

Contemporary Halloween

Contemporary Halloween is almost totally invested in costumes and candy, the more sweet and over-the-top, the better.  Nowhere is this more prevalent than the recent spate of ‘mostly-not-there’ costumes.  What is this phenomenon you ask?  It is the recent practice in adult costumes, in which the person has vampire/werewolf/zombie/murder victim make-up on, but is dressed in something non-existent, like a skimpy nurse’s costume, part of a negligee, or the shorts and socks from their gym clothes.  It is meant to seem as if they were “caught in the act” at their death, and they are still wandering around in exactly what they were wearing.  It seems odd, however.  Why are so many undead people in their underwear when they die?  Was there some memo sent out to ghouls and goblins everywhere requiring that they only attack the half-dressed?  Why are so many of these scantily clad undead, women?

It is with this gender disparity that the rub lies.  As we have moved farther from the original intentions of Halloween, honoring the dead and feeding the poor, we have somehow ended up in a strange hyper-sexualized, death-fetish wasteland that is almost more horrifying than some of the available outfits.  As Halloween rolls around again this year, and cheerleaders don their face paint, kitty cat ears, devil horns, booty shorts, and not much else; as my relatively well adjusted next-door-neighbor struts out of her house in zombie make-up, a see-through nightie, and high-heels, in the snow; and my niece argues with my brother about the fact that her Shirley Temple costume is so tiny that her bum shows when she walks up the steps, I have to scratch my head a bit.  I wonder if the dead people we are supposed to be honoring are watching us and scratching their heads as well.  I am fairly certain that they are paying much more attention to us, than we are to them.


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