The Halloween That Was

So, as we leave the three-day period known by the Catholics at Hallowmas, I can’t help but reflect a bit on one of the most fun, but also one of the most meaningless of all the holidays we celebrate today. Additionally, now that my son is beginning to understand some of the more entertaining elements of the celebration, i.e. getting candy, I wanted to understand at what point the candy element became part of the holiday. It struck me, like so many elements of the other major holidays, as just more American consumerism overwhelming the true meaning of a widely celebrated holiday. Finally, as I attempt to eat healthier and take better care of mine and my family’s diets, I wanted to see if there was some way I could start a movement to eliminate some of the candy overload we are all forced to participate in every year on October 31.

So, the consensus is that the modern celebration of Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhein (pronounced Sow-in). See, the ancient Celts lived in what is now Ireland, Britain, and parts of Northern France. What many people do not realize due to the climate moderating currents in the Northern Atlantic Ocean is that the United Kingdom sits as far north as cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Moscow, and Stockholm. The winters there, while not as cold as those continental cities in Canada and Russia, still hover near freezing, and the days in the winter get very short, and correspondingly very long in the summer. Imagine a winter there without the aid of electricity, heat, accessible food, modern plumbing, and pre-wrapped bite size chocolate candy…brr, gives me the chills just thinking about it.

Samhein for the Celts marked the end of the summer as they had completed harvesting their crops and were in the process of slaughtering their livestock for their winter stores. The Celts also lived in a time and place that was still unfamiliar with Christianity, Islam, and probably even Judaism. Their gods were those who controlled the elements around them, and their belief in an afterlife was of a spiritual world of the dead which existed separate from their world of the living. During Samhein, the Celts believed that the boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead became “ill-defined” allowing co-mingling with dead spirits both harmless and harmful. The Celts donned disguises during this festival often depicting the evil spirits that might do them harm. Sensibly, they believed that if they looked like an evil spirit themselves, perhaps the real evil spirits would leave them alone. Finally, in preparation for the long cold winter, the Celtic Druids would build massive bonfires upon which the Celts would burn crops and livestock as sacrificial offerings to the gods…so much for logic, eh?

The Romans finally arrived in the lands of the Celts around 40 A.D., bringing with them a couple of late-fall festivals called Feralia and Pomona that became combined with Samhein. The Roman festival of Pomona specifically honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, and its symbol was an apple. This symbol likely led to the tradition of bobbing for apples in later years. Later, the Catholic Church created the holidays of All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd in order to bring a semblance of Christianity to the celebration known collectively as Hallowmas.

Not until the mid-1800s did the traditions of dressing up and going door to door asking for food or money emerge in America. Gradually, Halloween became more about community and big Halloween parties. Community leaders and schools gradually made an effort to remove the mischief and superstition from the holiday, and by the middle of the 20th century the holiday became secular and aimed primarily at the youth of America. Trick-or-Treating became the custom and flourished as a way for the community to “share” the cost together, and theoretically prevent “tricks” to their household and property by providing treats for the children. Halloween is now estimated to be a $7 billion industry, second commercially only to Christmas.

For a time, children would often receive apples coated in candy, toffee, caramel, and sometimes nuts. These homemade treats, while certainly scrumptious, provided fodder for hysteria as rumors of ne’er-do-well hiding blades and needles in these treats scared most parents into forbidding the eating of such treats in favor of well-sealed confections made by big candy companies. In fact, most unsealed candy and treats are now considered some of the most detestable of treats one can receive on Halloween, and may even subject the treat provider to some “tricks” for their audacity. Convenient circumstances for companies such as Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, and Nestle to swoop in with solutions for every American home.

So, what are the kids today celebrating? Instead of being frightened by spirits of scamps and rascals or stories of mischief and terror, we are more scared of other people surely intending harm. Most trick-or-treat parades appear populated with parents herding munchkins still dressed as vampires and pirates, but also as Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine, and other popular icons of the day. While more sanitized, these aren’t too far off my own memories of Halloweens past.

Most of my candy-hauling took place during the early 1980s and involved loads of Snickers, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but also way too much Good n’ Plenty, Necco wafers, Double Bubble, and those annoying Peanut Butter nougat chews in the Orange and Black wrappers. I was an unabashedly terrible costume creator, but loved the “thrill of the hunt”, and during my best years went with a handful of friends sans parental supervision. We would stop off at home from time to time to empty our load and head out to a different zone (or occasionally hit some of the “good” houses a second or even third time). By the end of those nights, I had undoubtedly collected a year’s worth or more of candy, and ate a good portion of it immediately after the mandatory sort-and-trade session. I was a big fan of Almond Joy and Mounds which I could score for a song from most of my friends.

Some of my most entertaining Halloween memories, however, were not of trick-or-treating, but rather the all too rare Halloween party involving those Taffy Apples, apple-bobbing, and various games. I wore some pretty cool costumes (mostly homemade) back when it was my mother, rather than me, choosing my disguise, and later admired the handiwork of my more imaginative friends.

I guess now, as a parent, I am hopeful that we can find a home in a place where those old-school parties of the past will take place, and my kids can have the same great memories of this holiday beyond just the brands of candy and fears of the dark strangers of the world to interfere. And here is a thought for all parents next year, how about being one of those “bad” houses and give away something other than candy for a change? How about shiny quarters, or dollar coins if you are able? Perhaps Clif bars if you must give a candy-like treat? If you already have made this change, what did you give out? I am just thinking in the spirit of helping our country be a little less obese, perhaps we can help delay the orgy of sweets that typically begins with Halloween and extends right on through New Year’s Day every year.

And please, if you absolutely must give out candy, just don’t, whatever you do, be the house giving out those wretched Black and Orange wrapped Peanut Butter nougat chews. If you do, may the trick be on you!

Happy Halloween that was!

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