Razorwire is a monthly column that appears in the Clearwater Tribune featuring an article printed in the ICIO monthly publication.
Attitudes toward Halloween can vary greatly depending on one’s location or beliefs as well as the motivation behind the celebration. The holiday is symbolically associated with death and paranormal forces. Most Halloween festivities are based on folk beliefs concerning the supernatural and spirits of the dead; the decorations typically feature imagery associated with mystical beings such as witches, werewolves, vampires, and ghosts, but it has not always been that way. Halloween is related to other similar celebrations in other parts of the world from Druidism to political conspiracies.
Adapted celebrations, such as Allhallows or Hallowmas in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches on the eve of All Saints Day, were established as early as the 9th century. All Souls Day in the Catholic Church appeared in the 10th century. Day of the Dead is in Mexico, which predates the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, reflecting Native American traditions, and even Guy Fawkes’ Day is in the U.K where children light bonfires and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, a conspirator who tried to blow up the English Parliament in the 17th century. All can be related back to pagan festivals of the dead, long since forgotten as relatively modern adaptions of the holiday have gained recognition.
The most recognized symbol of modern Halloween today is probably the Jack-O’-Lantern, traditionally a hollowed-out pumpkin carved to resemble a grotesque face and illuminated by a candle placed inside. The Jack-O’-Lantern derives its name from a character in British folktales. According to ancient tales, the soul of Jack O’Lantern (yes, he was a person) was barred from both heaven and hell and condemned to wander the earth with his lantern.
On this night, October 31, many homes are decorated. Children dress up as witches and ghouls and go trick-or-treating, attempting to receive treats from neighbors. Most trick-or-treat bags usually brim with chocolate bars and other goodies as a symbol of plenty, and children feast on a bounty of candy.
The ancient peoples of Europe marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter by celebrating a holiday in late autumn. Samhain was a holiday observed by the ancient Celts, a tribal people who inhabited most of western and central Europe in the first millennium B.C.. Among the Celts, Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was one of four Celtic holidays linked to important transitions in the annual cycle of seasons. By the end of the first century A.D., the Romans had conquered most of the Celtic lands, and the adaptions of the earliest festivals began. The Romans started incorporating their own holidays, such as a festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees, where the tradition of bobbing for apples probably began, which survives to this day.
When the Puritans (strictly Protestant) initially settled in the United States, they rejected Halloween as a Catholic and pagan holiday, but as America evolved and other British colonies settled, Irish immigrants helped again popularize Halloween traditions. Even Detroit, Michigan’s Mischief Night, known there as Devil’s Night, had provided the occasion for waves of arson that sometimes destroyed whole city blocks during the 1970s and 1980s. The Halloween parade in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City features elaborate satirical costumes and drunken revelry. Especially popular among the local gay population, the Greenwich Village parade serves as a model for many other adult Halloween celebrations around the country. Similarly boisterous public Halloween festivities are celebrated in San Francisco, California, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Key West, Florida.
Halloween in the U.S. has developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. Home decorations with images once thought to symbolize bad omens, such as black cats, bats, and spiders, are also commonly featured in modern culture celebrations. Blockbuster movies together with corporate sponsored costume parties have helped launch an entire industry that was inspired and cultivated from a simple pagan harvest festival.