Halloween is the holiday that invites the world to enjoy candy and chocolate. Americans alone will buy 90 million pounds of chocolate in just the week before Halloween, generating an annually revenue for candy bar manufacturers of over $2.75 billion!
Yet all is not cavities and sugar highs. Ghosts and goblins have been celebrated (and feared) around the world for centuries, and immigration brought those diverse traditions to America, enriching and broadening our national culture.
In the early days of the country, conservative Puritan New England did not approve of the holiday or any other joyous holiday for that matter. They believed that such days of merriment and fun distracted from the more serious contemplation of the divine.
It was in the South, where the Church of England held sway, that Halloween gained its first foothold in colonial America. Though sometimes denounced as “the Devil’s birthday” by a local pastor, the holiday featured harvest festivals, elaborate dances and balls, playing games, wearing costumes and even a bit of harmless mischief-making.
These practices came from the Anglican and Catholic traditions of England, when on the eve of All Saints’ Day, the churchgoers remembered and celebrated “all the saints.” Within a short time, “all hallow [honor] the Eve” was shortened to “Hallowe’en” by Southern Colonialists.
Southern children enjoyed dressing in costumes and going door-to-door singing prayers or reciting poetry in exchange for treats such as pralines and caramel apples. Inside, adults livened up their evening with forerunners of such legendary beverages as the Chatham Artillery Punch, considered by many as the strongest drink in America.
Spanish colonists in the areas that would later become the American Southwest added Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead to American holiday traditions. Celebrated on October 31, the same date as the Anglican Southern holiday, candy sugar skulls and graveyard imagery became part of the expanding national Halloween traditions along with caramel flans and tamarind flavored drinks.
When over half a million Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s, fleeing the starvation of potato famine, arrived in America they added their Celtic traditions to Halloween. In ancient Ireland, the holiday was known as Samhain and was the largest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year.
The Celts believed that during the last days of October, the ghosts of the dead would try to mingle with the living. The ancient Irish sacrificed animals and displayed scary carved fruits and vegetables to keep the harmful ghosts, spirits and demons away from the living.
Missionaries such as St. Patrick converted the Celts to Christianity and sought to wipe out the “pagan” holiday. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the priests simply converted the pagan holiday to Christian celebration: Halloween.
Even the pre-Christian spice cakes were renamed as “soul cakes” and enriched with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and raisins to ‘spice up’ the experience of conversion. Each sweet cake was topped with a cross to remind the diner of its origin.
Celtic revelers often wore masks to confuse hostile angry spirits looking for their living relatives. That tradition carried over to America where today’s masks are modeled on characterized images of envied movie stars and disliked politicians.
Halloween has been largely enhanced by the many immigrants who added their many traditions to America’s culture. Given the enduring benefit of the contributions made by immigrants from pralines to spice cakes, we should say perhaps a grateful, “Thank You!” rather then a hurried (and commercialized) “Trick or Treat.”