Halloween. It’s a holiday anticipated and embraced with equal fervor by kids craving an unmitigated sugar rush, by adults looking for an excuse to dress up like creepily-eroticized pop-culture characters, and by dentists craving sugar-induced high insurance deductibles.
Halloween is a big deal in America today. For a hyper-materialistic society that long ago replaced agricultural rhythms with consumer totems as markers of the seasonal cycles, the first appearance of Halloween paraphernalia in shopping centers signals the transition from summer to fall. Moreover, American society is rife with contradictions created by major disconnects between ideals and reality on issues ranging from marriage, to sex education, to economic mobility. Halloween’s emphasis on duality and the inversion of traditional social customs appeals to Americans caught up in these webs of contradictions because it effectively sanctions misbehavior and the inversion of “traditional” norms. In this respect, Halloween — at least temporarily — validates Milton’s famous line that “it’s better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Beyond the sanctioning of revelry, however, Halloween’s popularity in America also stems from its sheer marketability: it provides super-charged fuel for the capitalist engine. Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported that a whopping 66% of Americans — nearly 158 million people — celebrate Halloween, and they’ll spend an impressive $6.9 billion in the process. Americans, more than any other previous world civilization, have demonstrated a remarkable talent for turning even the most culturally rich celebrations into a series of mundane monetary exchanges. So they have done with Halloween by turning an ancient pagan ritual into an excuse to buy mountains of costumes, candy, and decorations. By providing a limited time-period for both the controlled inversion of social norms and the relentless stoking of capitalist fires, Halloween has assumed a truly hallowed role in American culture.
Of course, you can’t blame Americans entirely for commercializing Halloween. The holiday’s history made it ripe for this type of cultural appropriation by providing an excuse to let humankind’s many demons run wild once a year. Halloween’s roots go back to the British Isles and the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, the New Year’s Day on the Celtic calendar.
Like modern-day Halloween, Samhain corresponded with the harvest, and thus served as a yearly transition between the seasons that acknowledged the coming of winter. Samhain’s association with the death of crops and encroaching darkness made it rife with the symbolism of life and death. As folklorist Jack Santino observes, Samhain “associated the fruits of the harvest with ideas of the afterlife and the otherworld.”* Samhain was a time of transition, when the veil between earth and the spirit world was thinnest. On Samhain Eve, the Celts lit bonfires and laid out harvest gifts for the travelling souls of the dead passing through the corporeal plane on their way to the next realm. The association of Samhain with the dead lives on in Halloween’s celebration of ghosts and ghouls.
Ancient legends associated with Samhain also provided the template for trick-or-treating that came to so define America’s’ consumerist approach to Halloween. One such story described a hero named Nero who, while begging from door-to-door on Samhain, discovered a cave leading into the fairy realm. This story established the idea that Samhain was a time that permitted access to the otherworld. In another tale, a supernatural race called “Fomorians” demanded tribute from Celtic mortals, who obliged by offering harvest fruits to these Gods at Samhain.
As Santino notes, paying tribute to the gods echoed the folk custom of leaving out gifts for wandering spirits, a practice that was, in turn, recreated via the custom of mumming (stemming from the Danish word mumme: to parade in masks). In the practice of mumming, patrons gave food and drink to wanderers disguised to imitate spirits. Santino notes that, “the ideas of the dead wandering the earth begging food and the giving of food and drink in tribute and as payment to wandering spirits” created the template for contemporary trick-or-treating.*
Early in the fifth century, Christian missionaries came to the British Isles and tried to transform the pagan ritual of Samhain into a Christian holiday. Missionaries branded Samhain’s supernatural entities as elements of the Devil. Fairies became fallen angels; the wandering dead became more malicious; the Celtic underworld became the Christian Hell, and followers of pagan beliefs were branded as witches. Yet, even after the Catholic Church established November 1st as All Saints Day (also known as All Hallows, or sanctification) and November 2 as All Souls Day, the old pagan traditions lived on. People continued to pay tribute to the wandering dead on All Hallows Eve by setting out food and drink. All Hallows Eve was also referred to as All Hallow Even or Hallowe’en, and is still celebrated with many of the old customs intact.*
The All Hallows Eve tradition of masquerading as spirits, when combined with old Celtic traditions of hollowing out fall vegetables and illuminating them with candles to ward off the dead, provided the right combination that allowed Americans to transform Halloween into a pageant of mischievous masked revelry and orgiastic consumerism.
In the 19th century, the development of a more urbanized market economy facilitated a growing urban/rural divide that still exists today. As more Americans moved off of the farm, harvest fruits increasingly came to serve as consumed representations of a lost rural past to be displayed in urban and suburban built environments. Santino cites perennial American fall trips to the countryside to buy pumpkins to carve into jack-o’-lanterns as symbolic of Americans’ transforming natural objects into modified ones. “Once transformed,” Santino writes, harvest fruits like pumpkins “are not strictly tied to the organic base and can be rendered in other media.”* In modern America, the rendering of Halloween harvest fruits into other media occurs in the form of the cavalcade of Halloween decorations, candy, and mass-produced costumes. Halloween is highly suited to American capitalism because it provides an irresistible mixture of seasonal nostalgia and pagan masquerade traditions.
These masquerade traditions, which date back to the ancient Celts, fuel an endless push to produce increasingly elaborate Halloween costumes for an American public that simply can’t wait to buy them. It’s no coincidence that Halloween’s explosion into a commercial holiday largely corresponded with the American post-World War II economic boom: Americans had more money to spend on holiday frivolities. Costumes, of course, are big among kids looking to maximize both their glucose intake and their dental bills as trick-or-treaters. But costumes are also popular among adults looking to use Halloween’s traditional blurring of the realms of light and dark — of the living and the dead — to dress up in all manner of ridiculous outfits and carry on in carnival-style revelry each October. Halloween has become so popular among adults that Forbes magazine accused grown-ups of “hijacking” the holiday from kids.
At Halloween, costumed adults can embrace a range of normally taboo subjects such as death, sexual freedom, and every type of imaginable hedonism. Halloween, however fleetingly, creates an environment welcoming to would-be American libertines, and these normally constrained adults spend big money to achieve such temporary moments of costumed euphoria that symbolically invert traditional social norms.
Halloween’s many dualistic traditions: the contrast between living and dead, mortal and immortal, summer and fall, wicked and angelic, rural and urban, have turned it into the quintessential American holiday. It mixes nostalgia, repressed urges, and hedonism into a potent witches’ brew that fuels consumerism every October. So whatever your age, go carve a pumpkin, dress up like a ghoul, and say “hello” to the dead while you’re at it. After all, Halloween is the only time of year when the dead are the life of the party.
* See Jack Santino, “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances,” Western Folklore 42 (Jan., 1983): 5-8, 15-16.