Halloween Traditions Unmasked

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Pumpkins, zombies and candy , oh my! Halloween is here. Many modern day Halloween traditions in the US have been adapted over centuries. A day to celebrate the dead is prevalent in cultures all around the world. Each year, “Hallowmas” is recognized as we transition from October into November. All Hallows Eve is celebrated on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and Souls Day on the 2nd. As we celebrate this spooky holiday each October, we carry out traditions of dressing up, trick-or-treating, and pumpkin carving. All of which, have origins from different cultural rituals.

In Great Britain, during the medieval times, the poor would go door-to-door ‘souling.’ This act entailed asking for treats in exchange for prayers for the dead. They would also hide behind masks chanting, singing, and making mischief. Which in those days, they called ‘mumming.’ The legend behind this tradition stemmed from stories of sprits rising from the dead. People would give treats to these spirits as a peace offering. Jack-o-lanterns have also been adopted from British rituals. The literal translation for the traditionally carved pumpkin is ‘Man with a Lantern.’ It represents the lantern that kids would carry as they went souling though town. Jack-o-lanterns carry the myth that a candle flicker represents the presence of a spirit.

In Ireland and Scotland, kids went door-to-door in disguise to imitate evil spirits. They would collect gifts in the form of coins and other treats. The phrase “trick-or-treat” originated in the US, mid-20th century.  It was used as a bribe of some sorts. A way to entice kids to stay out of trouble and withhold from pranks. This custom has embedded itself into present day Halloween celebrations.

Dia de los Muertos is another widely celebrated tradition that takes place during Hallowmas. It is primarily celebrated in Mexico but is also recognized in other Latino cultures. Dia de los Muertos, translated as Day of the Dead, is a day designated for family and friends to come together and remember those who have passed away.

As we get older, Halloween becomes less about filling up the largest bag of candy and more about dressing up and socializing. It’s the one day a year where you can get away with being anyone, or anything you want to be. I wonder, is it possible that our traditions have been adopted by the stories and fabrications passed on through generations? Or, has history shaped our traditions more than we may realize?

Now I am no historian, but these folklores and traditions unarguably reflect many of of our adapted Halloween rituals. But, one thing is most clear to me. Each these traditions share in the act of generosity. Whether it be coins, treats or prayers, this day is steadfast in recognizing the dead though an offering of some sort.

Halloween launches us forward into a rapidly approaching holiday season. A time of the year centered around openhandedness and doing things for others.  On Halloween we give candy, Thanksgiving we give thanks, and on Christmas and Hanukah we give gifts. Though it may be tradition that motivates these actions, I like to believe that ultimately humans are thoughtful and giving souls, who feel pleasure out of bringing joy to others and the world.

Share your experiences!