Not so spooky after all: The roots of Halloween are tamer than you think

Posted 10/30/13

A long time ago, when the publishers of Herman Melville reissued “Moby Dick” in the early part of the last century, acerbic book critic and wit Dorothy Parker, who called herself Constant Reader …

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Not so spooky after all: The roots of Halloween are tamer than you think


A long time ago, when the publishers of Herman Melville reissued “Moby Dick” in the early part of the last century, acerbic book critic and wit Dorothy Parker, who called herself Constant Reader when she reviewed books, said of “Moby Dick,” “This book taught me more about whales than I wanted to know.”

Well, in the manner of Herman Melville and the spirit of Dorothy Parker, I’m about to do the same thing for Halloween that Melville did for whales.

To begin with, every year, you hear grumbling in the press and other places about the propriety of letting our children celebrate Halloween. More extreme religious people claim it’s a celebration of Satan and other practitioners of black arts. Less extreme but still pious people fret about losing sight of what the word itself means.

Well, the word itself doesn’t mean anything.

“Halloween” is a colloquial contraction, achieved over centuries of usage, of “All Hallow’s Eve,” meaning it is the night before many Christians celebrate All Saints Day, which, beyond honoring canonized saints, invites us to reflect on the lives they led and use them as examples for our own lives.

Scott P. Richert, in his article on the website about Catholicism explained:

“All Saints Day, the day on which Catholics celebrate all the saints, known and unknown, is a surprisingly old feast. It arose out of the Christian tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of saints on the anniversary of their martyrdom. When martyrdoms increased during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, local dioceses instituted a common feast day in order to ensure that all martyrs, known and unknown, were properly honored.”

The recent rumors about satanic origins for Halloween have been exposed in many places as the work of a group of believers who wanted to create a history and mythology for their own set of beliefs and want to credit the Druids in ancient Celtic cultures with creating a harvest celebration that was consciously co-opted by the Church. A wide scan of opinion seems to support Halloween as we know it in America as an amalgam of several ethnic cultures.

The melding of cultures resulted in what we have today.

Dressing up came from the French, whereas the Irish used to make a clamor on the eve of All Saints to appease the unfortunate souls who didn’t make it to Heaven with the hope of discouraging them to come back to the living world. The macabre images of witches and goblins can be found in their original form on the walls of cemeteries and churches in mediaeval Europe. At the time of the Black Death, Church leaders wanted to remind their congregations that death was closer to hand than they imagined and they should worry for their immortal souls.

The first attempts to show some connection between the vigil of All Saints and the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain came over a thousand years after All Saints Day became a universal feast. And the Church didn’t have to go to the Druids for a harvest feast. Every agricultural economy on the Earth had some sort of display of gratitude to the unseen powers that allowed the harvest. In Celtic peasant culture, elements of the harvest festival survived, even among Christians, just as the Christmas tree owes its origins to pre-Christian Germanic traditions without actually being a pagan ritual … almost in spite of the Devil.

What about Jack-O’-Lanterns?

The name, “jack-o’-lantern,” is old British for “man with a lantern” and a folk name for the mysterious flickering lights seen over wetlands at night and associated with fairies and ghosts playing pranks on travelers.

It became the term for a homemade object also known as a “turnip lantern,” defined by Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume “The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire” as “a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it.”

In America, people found the pumpkin more plentiful and much easier to carve than turnips, but it remained customary for Catholic children to carry jack-o'-lanterns door-to-door to represent the souls of the dead while begging for treats, which brings us to the economics of Halloween.

By the early 20th century, Halloween, like Christmas, was commercialized. Pre-made costumes, decorations and special candy all became available. The Christian origins of the holiday were downplayed.

In the New York Times in 2008, Catherine Rampell did a sort of roundup about the way economists viewed Halloween. They ranged from a socialist form of redistributing wealth, with some of them recommending that the candy part of the transaction be replaced with cash.

“That way consumers [children] can go out and buy whatever goods [candies] they want, rather than inefficiently being given goods [black licorice] they may not eat,” one scholar argued, “to make the holiday more efficient.”

In 2004, Jeffrey Tucker of the Ludwig von Mises Institute wrote about the economic lessons children learn from Halloween - “that they need to work for their rewards [unlike during Christmas, when they get them for free], and that bartering is an option when they don’t get the candies they want.”

The Census bureau released a factoid that the per capita consumption of candy by Americans in 2007 was 24.5 pounds.

In Forbes Magazine, on Oct. 22 of this year, Steve Cooper presented us with the latest available facts about the impact of Halloween on the economy:

- 158 million consumers will participate in Halloween activities; down from 170 million in 2012, according to the National Retail Federation.

- 86.1 percent of those surveyed said they will spend less overall on Halloween this year, and in particular 32.7 percent will buy less candy and 18.1 percent will make a costume instead of buying one.

- 25.2 percent say the state of the economy is impacting their Halloween plans.

- The average amount the celebrating consumer expects to spend $75.03 on Halloween; down from $79.82 in 2012.

- $2.6 billion will be spent on costumes by the 43.6 percent of people who plan to dress up. Children’s costumes account for $1.04 billion of that.

- $330 million to dress pets.

- $2.08 billion will be spent on candy.

- Total spending should reach $5.9 billion.

In spite of the growing economics of Halloween, it is still a smaller holiday than Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Father’s Day. Father’s Day alone represents $9.01 billion.

So, Halloween is still a minor event on the American calendar, but let’s sum up what we’ve learned:

Halloween is not a thinly disguised homage to the Devil and Black Magic.

It is still a Christian celebration, but not as pious as some people would like it to be.

It is still one of the best parts of being a kid in this country. Where else, or when, can a kid walk up to an adult and say “Give me a treat, or else.”

Forget the dentist, forget the prudes, forget the incessant ringing of your doorbell. Remember what it was like to be a kid on Halloween and got out and buy plenty of candy … or else.


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