History Corner: Halloween

David Madill

Last Halloween I dressed up as a secret service agent. I was a junior then, and I am a senior now, but I still plan to dress up. People who say they’ve gotten too old for costumes and candy are boring geezers. I plan to dress up for Halloween until the “Day of the Dead” is celebrating me.

Halloween is another of those originally religious holidays that have lost most, if not all, religious significance. While not Christian in roots, it was adopted and adapted by Christians in 609 AD as a way to remember and honor the dead. Nowadays, however, it seems to focus more on the undead than actual people who lived actual lives.

It’s easy to trace the path of Halloween’s evolution by looking at our current Halloween celebrations and seeking their roots in Christian tradition. For example, our party game of “bobbing for apples” (which I’ve never actually tried) came about in response to the idea of abstaining from meat, which many Christians used to focus themselves on a humble attitude during the holiday. The modern Jack ‘o’ Lantern comes from a story about a man (Jack) who wanders around purgatory with a glowing pumpkin as his lantern. Costumes were originally introduced in the late 1800s as a way to poke fun at Satan. As with many holiday traditions, basically any part of Halloween you can think of has a religious root. Yet most of these are lost in the consumerist, sugar-loving extravaganza that Halloween has become.

It has been said that those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it, and that saying has become, in many ways, the mantra of this column. While a proverb’s popularity doesn’t necessarily make it true, this one has a ring of veracity. It prompts interesting questions, which the History Corner then attempts to answer. In this case, I can’t help but wonder: could there be consequences for the way we have pushed holiday origins to the side, forgetting their significance?

We love complaining about how holidays like Thanksgiving have been commercialized. Every year there’s a huge hubbub about Black Friday starting earlier and earlier on Thursday. Christmas songs start in November, and decorations are on sale before that.

If none of that sounds like a problem to you, then stop reading. But if you, like me, think cheapened holidays diluted by marketing are saddening, then maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look for the real meaning behind the rituals we carry out, year in and out, in the name of holidays. Halloween is a great place to start because it begins a series of holiday-rich months with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day, and all of these holidays have meaning beyond Walmart profit margins. Find that meaning. Maybe you don’t agree with it or think it applies to you now, but at least you won’t be basing your life on the whims of a TV ad jingle or a fake plastic lawn ornament.


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