Today, the 31st of October, is widely celebrated as Halloween. From its origins as a religious festival among the Celts of Great Britain, Halloween has spread to much of the Western world as a day of fun and festivity of a purely secular and highly commercial nature. Halloween has so grown in popularity in the past three decades that it is now ranked by some sources as the second most important commercial holiday in the United States, bested only by Christmas. (Such rankings are rather fuzzy, though. It all depends upon what you wish to count. In any case, Halloween is obviously a very big deal.)
When I was young, Halloween was still often written as “Hallowe’en,” because it is properly a contraction of “All Hallows evening,” being the night before All Saints (Hallows) Day, November 1. With Halloween the night before a celebration of all the Saints, and perhaps in part because the holiday straddles the end of one month and the start of another, and due to the pagan Celtic celebrations which preceded it, Halloween has long been marked as a special time of the year when the dual worlds of the living and the dead can make contact. Thus the celebration is attended by ghosts and goblins and witches and fantastic beasts and all manner of denizens of the netherworlds.
Halloween was traditionally celebrated in Ireland with bonfires, singing, and dancing, and – one presumes – imbibing of spiritous beverages as well. To guide the revelers home in the dark hours after the festivities, turnips (so the story goes) would be pressed into service as lanterns to light the way. The vegetable would be scooped out and holes cut to let permit light to shine out; a few embers from the dying bonfire would be placed inside, and the traveller would hold the turnip by its greens on the dark homeward journey. It became traditional to carve impish face patterns into the turnip, and so began the tradition of “Jack of the Lantern.” Today we use a more easily carved pumpkin to make our Jack-o-lanterns, which are not really suitable for carrying, but make really attractive lights. (Personally, I express a certain doubt about the turnip tale: for one thing a turnip hardly seems like a logical choice for creating a lantern; too, the embers of a bonfire seem unlikely to shed much light. But I am simply relaying what I learned as a young lad. 🙂 )
In the 19th Century, Irish immigrants to North America brought the Halloween tradition with them. By the turn of the 20th Century, Halloween was already being commercialized, with cards, candy sales, and costume parties being promoted. Yet it was not until that late 1970s that Halloween began to assume the massive commercial presence that it enjoys today. Part of the explanation is no doubt the power of modern marketing, and part is perhaps the result of a culture shift. Today’s Halloween is far removed from its origins as a quasi-religious observation, and so may appeal to a wide range of cultural traditions. And who doesn’t occasionally enjoy costumes and candy?
In any event, enjoy the day however you may.
From ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties
and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!
— Scots Invocation