Halloween is a holiday celebrated in North America that occurs annually on October 31. It includes a whole host of activities and events leading up to and occurring on that day. It is a culmination of the fall season leading into the following holiday season.
The holiday is not resigned to October 31, but is considered a whole season chocked full of activities that consist of hayrides, haunted houses, fall festivals, and apple cider. It unofficially begins in September with the introduction of pumpkin spice season in which one can find just about anything food and beverage related in pumpkin spice flavor. Every year more new products are added to the offerings for consumers. The pumpkin spice craze was initiated by retail coffee giant, Starbucks when it began serving its infamous, Pumpkin Spice Latte, or otherwise affectionately referred to as simply PSL. It is a hot coffee pumpkin spiced flavor drink that people cannot seem to get enough of, so much so, that it is Starbucks’ number one selling beverage during the fall season. When Starbucks unveils this favorite beverage each year, many consider that to be the kick-off of the fall season.
It is important to mention the PSL because it is from that point that American society deems it permissible and acceptable to begin decorating for fall and Halloween in September. Travel through any suburban neighborhood and one can get an eyeful of ghosts, goblins, mummies, witches, spiders spinning webs, mock graveyards, giant scarecrows, pumpkins, hay bales depicting beautiful fall scenes sprawled across front yards, and colorful fall wreaths hanging prominently upon front doors. It does not take long to get in the Halloween spirit when seeing the sights popping up all around.
As time draws nearer to Halloween, a whole host of community-wide events are held. Some of these include, fall festivals where young and old alike can partake of games, candied apples, apple cider, and pumpkin pie, dressing up in their favorite Halloween costumes, and trunk or treat. Some communities even host fireworks events in celebration of the coming holiday. On October 31, the numerous fall celebrations are commemorated in one final big celebration that consists of dressing up in colorful costumes and going trick or treating as nightfall approaches. This is the cap-off to the entire season and is a fun-filled evening for children and adults alike.
Trick or treating is like a game of sorts. Individuals dress up in creative costumes and go door to door in neighborhoods and communities collecting candy. In order to get candy, one must say the key phrase, “Trick or Treat”. Homeowners pass out candy to visitors. It is a rule of thumb that if a porch light is not turned on then the respective house(s) should be by-passed during trick or treating. In the past decade, churches have adopted a form of trick or treating called trunk or treating which is held in church parking lots. Participants decorate their trunks and children go vehicle to vehicle collecting candy. Some communities have also opted for holding Halloween on alternate dates apart from the traditional October 31, to dates held over weekends to coincide with the holiday. Although safety concerns over the past decade have prompted parents to opt for alternative Halloween celebrations for their kids, it has not deterred them from canning the holiday altogether.
The origins of Halloween date back some two thousand years to the countries of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. It was recognized by the Celts and marked the end of the farming season in anticipation of the new year which occurred on November 1. It was commonly referred to as Samhain or Hallow E’en. It also symbolized the boundaries between the living and the dead that were broken, allowing the ghosts of the dead to inhabit the earth. The Celts would hold big community festivals, build huge bonfires, and sacrificed animals to their gods in an effort to protect themselves from the demon spirits (Burling 30). As legend would have it, Samhain began on November 1 during the dark half of the year, thus, this is where the significance of the darkness of the holiday comes from. Celtics did not necessarily see this as being evil, but also considered it a fertile dark. Samhain was linked to fertility as well as death so for the Celtics this time could signify both things (Trevarthen 6).
Some of the rituals the Celts participated in to commemorate Samhain were through bridging the mortal and immortal worlds. Many believed this period was a time that foretold the future. Celts viewed this time as one of peace and not fear because of the belief that their dead loved ones lived on immortally (Trevarthen 7).
Halloween prompts other celebrations that occur within a few days of October 31. The Catholic holidays of All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2 are celebrated to remember the saints and relatives who have passed on. Mexican culture holds Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2, where residents dress up in colorful skeleton costumes to depict life after death (Trevarthen 7). Many cultures and countries have adopted their own practices to signify Halloween since its inception by the Celts. From a cultural standpoint, Halloween is a time of celebration in the United States. It marks the beginning of the fall season and promotes a time of fun and fellowship between families and friends. It is also considered big business by economic standards.
Halloween has evolved into a socio-cultural and economic phenomenon in North American and Europe. The holiday is a prime example of something that held little significance when it was initially brought to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 1840’s. Since the 1980’s it has grown in popularity and has been heavily commercialized and Americanized to garner a multi-billion dollar industry (McKechnie & Tynan 1012). As of 2011, it was predicted that Americans would spend over $6.86 billion on Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations. It has become one of the most financially lucrative holidays ranking just under the Christmas season and continues to grow annually.
Given that Halloween is a cultural phenomenon in the United States; its popularity has been derived from the ways in which people in communities tend to celebrate the holiday. When thinking in terms of community, it can be defined as “a social, religious, occupational or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists” (O’Brien & Szeman 220). This certainly applies to Halloween and how it is celebrated within the United States as opposed to other countries. Culture can vary dependent upon how people behave and interact within it. Different parts of the United States celebrate Halloween in all kinds of ways. For example, in the South, a fall festival describes an event that includes games, food, and a party-like atmosphere. In the Midwest it may be referred to as a Hoedown or Autumn Festival.
The Americanization of popular culture has largely been molded and shaped by the media. This is a driving force behind pushing ideas forwards in society in order to make them relevant. Americans tend to view “the new media culture in a celebratory mode, as the embodiment of America’s democratic spirit” (O’Brien & Szeman 18). In other words, Americans are big on celebrating. The media has tapped into this by hyping up all holidays from a commercial standpoint. Halloween was once a simple event in which children dressed up, went door to door trick or treating, collected treats, and headed home to check out their loot. As time has evolved, it has become sensationalized into an entire season leading up to October 31. This is indicative of the numerous events going on surrounding it that participants can pick and choose from. Halloween costumes were once created from what one had on hand. Now, major retailers offer a myriad of children’s and adult’s costumes to choose from, thus eliminating the need for creativity and ingenuity, in exchange for ease and convenience in our fast-paced world.
The change in American culture has “promoted values of liberalism, individualism, and consumerism” (O’Brien & Szeman 19) which has helped to escalate society to one built on these things. It has also served to have an impact on the economy. When a cultural holiday like Halloween can become commercialized to the magnitude it has, this means big bucks for retailers.
There is an inherent need of every individual to feel a sense of belonging. Community and fellowship is an important component of that. The community in which one comes from determines its culture. In American culture, it is socially acceptable to partake in holidays and events such as Halloween in order to feel a part of it all. As the media has pushed and succeeded for the commercialization of Halloween, society has conformed to the ideology and made it an acceptable practice. The status quo tends to dictate the relevance of any and all things it deems important. This is why Halloween is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The more commercialized something becomes; the more society feels a need to make it a part of normal culture. If things were to reverse and Halloween was relegated to a simplistic holiday in the same manner it began, it would be the result of the media pushing for it and society would follow suit. Whatever is promoted as culturally acceptable and pleasing to the masses is typically adopted as the norm.
- Burling, Alexis. “Halloween History.” Storyworks 10 2008: 30. ProQuest. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
- McKechnie, Sally, and Caroline Tynan. “Halloween In A Material World: Trick Or Treat?.” Journal Of Marketing Management 24.9/10 (2008): 1011-1023. Business Source Complete. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.
- O’Brien, Susie, and Imre Szeman. Popular Culture: A User’s Guide. Toronto: Nelson Education, Ltd., 2010. Print.
- Trevarthen, Geo Athena. “The Celtic origins of Halloween transcend fear.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 90.3 (2010): 6+. Academic OneFile. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.