Well it’s that time of year again. The temperature is slowly dropping and the leaves are fighting to hold fast to their branches and once again it is time for Halloween. English teachers across the country are dusting off their Halloween crafts and trying to remember in which file they hid their best Halloween activities.
Inevitably the history and background of Halloween will be discussed. I am always surprised to hear when teachers claim that modern day Halloween and the concept of Trick-or-Treating dates back to pagan Ireland or old medieval England somewhere. Mainstream Trick-or-Treating and the celebration of Halloween as a dress-up holiday was not practised in the UK until late in the 20th century and even the term ‘Trick-or-Treat’ only became popularized in the UK in the 1990s. It does seem however, that there is a distant, foggy relationship between the modern day holiday and some 15th century traditions.
AllHallowtide, Hallowmas, Allsaintstide
The name of the Christian season from October 31st to November 2nd was known as Hallowmas and it included All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day but also the eve of All Saints’ Day – October 31st. On All Hallows’ Eve, Christians traditionally believed that the metaphoric distance between the material world and the ‘other side’ closed. In order to prevent being recognized by a spirit, people would put on disguises or costumes to conceal their identities. Also as far back as the 15th century, among Christians, there had existed a custom of sharing soul cakes at Allhallowtide. People would visit houses and take soul cakes, either as representatives of the dead, or as a payment for praying for their souls. As time went on, people would go from one parish to the next during the evening before All Saints’ Day, asking for soul-cakes chanting the verse: ‚Soul, souls, for a soul-cake; Pray you good mistress, a soul-cake!’
They were asking for „mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake”. It was known as ‚Souling’ and was recorded in parts of Britain, Flanders, southern Germany and Austria. William Shakespeare himself wrote about the practice; „puling [whimpering or crying] like a beggar at Hallowmas„. This is a line from the Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Popping up Here and There
The concept of wearing more elaborate disguises is highly likely a derivative of the 15th century practice but its development occurred slowly and in fragmented pockets all over the English speaking world. The first record of ‘guising’ as it came to be known dates back to 1895 in Scotland when people would go from home to home wearing masks and carrying lanterns in order to receive treats of cakes, fruit or money. Kingston, Ontario Canada is where the practice of ‘guising’ at Halloween was first recorded in North America, in a local newspaper dating back to 1911.
The pocketed communities involved in this practice grew slowly over time and its popularity began to gradually catch on. All this was abruptly halted by the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s and again during the war years when sugar was being heavily rationed in the US.
Post War Boom
It was only after World War 2 when the practice came back in full swing much helped by media aimed at children encouraging Halloween fun. These included the Jack Benny Show, The Baby Snookie Show, and most importantly in a 1951 Peanuts comic by Charles Schulz which featured the practice of going door to door asking for sweets. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney demonstrated the practice in the cartoon Trick or Treat. In 1953 UNICEF granted ‘Trick-or-Treating’ public notoriety by establishing a national campaign for asking children to raise funds for the charity while going door to door.
The Practice itself
Trick-or-treating usually occurs between the hours of 5:30pm and 9:30pm on October 31, with groups of children often accompanied by their mums and dads. Families who want to take part in festivities sometimes decorate their private entrances with spooky decorations such as jack-o-lanterns, macabre looking skeletons and strung-up fabric spider webs. Decorating the home is usually a sure sign that homes are participating in handing out candy but also a porch or front light left on is symbolic of the fact that there will be candy given out. When a home is not participating in festivities they will usually leave the lights turned off along with the porch or front door light. These reluctant participants may run the risk of getting their houses ‘egged’ by vengeful adolescents.
Decline in Recent Years
Most recently, many communities are starting to see the holiday as irrelevant and the costume choices are becoming increasingly absurd, provocative and/or offensive. Many American universities even publish information leaflets advising on which costumes may be examples of cultural appropriation and which activities are not allowed – i.e. TP-ing: the practice of covering trees or other objects in toilet paper.
Several communities and schools in the US feel that Halloween is not inclusive enough to ethnic minorities and attempts have been made to ‘re-brand’ the day as ‘Black and Orange Spirit’ Day. These attempts are on-going in various communities and it remains to be seen if they will catch on.
Generally speaking Halloween is experiencing a slight decline in popularity in English speaking countries and ironically seems to be catching on in other places where Halloween has NOT traditionally been practised. How do you feel about Halloween? Has it become increasingly popular in your country? Do YOU do anything for Halloween? Let us know in the comments below.
Cultural appropriation – is the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture without fully understanding the culture itself. As a result it can be harmful and disrespectful. An example would be dressing up as a Japanese Geisha and wearing a traditional outfit that may or may not be culturally accurate but is seen as ‘lampooning’ or making fun of that culture.