Tricks and Treats: The Mixed Bag of Halloween’s Complex Past

Natasha Douglass

The world always begins to feel auspicious as Halloween draws closer. The flickering lights, dancing shadows, and strangely behaving birds. The days are cut short, and pulling your coat tightly closed is protection from the cold … but maybe something else. Late autumn is a particularly spooky time in childhood, raising questions about death and darkness which remain buried in spring and summer. My childhood was full of different places, but one Halloween I spent in New Mexico has stayed with me ever since. 

New Mexican holidays are unique. A combination of Mexican, Spanish, Native American, and European religious traditions form a medley that is often unrecognisable and more than the sum of its parts. These are not patchwork holidays, but rather traditions which encapsulate the human condition and draw on what we all have in common. 

No matter where you are in the world, Halloween can be a controversial topic. It’s accused of devil-worship, paganism, and dangerous interactions between children and strangers. There’s a lot of division among modern Christians about whether Halloween should even be celebrated. Some argue that it’s a celebration of the devil and Christians should run in the other direction; others believe that avoiding it is superstitious, so it’s better to participate in a harmless way. It remains, however, an extremely popular holiday among Catholics, such that the Catholic church even cites criticisms of Halloween as anti-Catholic sentiment. Many Protestants seem to have forgotten the Christian origins of the holiday and the saints that it honours. 

The oldest form of Halloween traces back to the ancient Celtic festival Samhain (sow-in). This was a day when everything was turned upside down and the delicate boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead wore thin. This liminal space allowed the contradictory traditions of raucous celebration and reverent honouring of the dead to arise side by side.  Families held feasts in hope that ancestral spirits would attend and bless the communities with goodwill, setting extra places along the decorated tables to welcome and honour the ghosts. Townspeople dressed as spirits in scary costumes and played tricks, hoping the spirits wouldn’t recognise them. Children were tucked in to stories of spirits and faeries, and the boisterous celebrations would continue into the long winter night. 

Hundreds of years later, the Catholic church instituted All Saints’ Day as the number of martyrs grew too large to give each their own feast day. Honouring the dead was an important part of the early Christian faith, and soaring cathedrals were built on the spot where a martyr’s blood had spilled. When Christianity spread to Ireland, the pope combined Halloween and Samhain into the same holiday. Trick or treating took on its early form, combining the Celtic costumes with a Catholic practice of going to door to door offering prayers in exchange for food. The traditions developed over the next several centuries and spread back around Europe, creating the bones of the holiday we celebrate today. 

Spanish Catholic colonists took these traditions with them as they settled the region of the southwestern United States they dubbed Nuevo Mexico in 1528. There they encountered yet another autumnal celebration of the dead: Día de Muertos, The Day of the Dead. Based on ancient Aztec traditions celebrating the lives of those who have passed, Día de Muertos is a festival with a humourous tone, where families gather to laugh at stories of their ancestors. A newer tradition is the writing of calaveras literarias (literary skulls), which are mocking epitaphs of friends and families as if they have already passed. 

Pieces of Samhain, All Saints’ Day, and Día de Muertos are plucked out and rejoined to form the spooky, reverent, joyful, and religious Halloween that is celebrated in the Southwestern United States today. The fear and excitement are heightened by the vast expanse of desert framed by mountains on the horizon. The moon is especially sharp and stories of wolves hunting for children are told around the state. Kids run from adobe house to adobe house in costumes that are scarier and more gruesome than in the rest of the country. As you walk past the carved pumpkins by front doors, you notice the colourful, ornately decorated skeletons with Aztec designs dangling from timber rafters. 

Samhain, All Saints’ Day, and Día de Muertos all draw on something central to the human condition: a desire to make peace with death. The Celts did this by putting on costumes to hide from any vengeful dead and hosting feasts for any benevolent ones that might pay a visit. The Aztecs did this by welcoming the dead with laughter and jokes. The early Christians did this with feasts of reverence and remembrance. Halloween certainly has less spiritual meaning today than it did in these original traditions, and thanks to modern medicine, many of our communities are relatively unfamiliar with death. This is of course a wonderful thing, but it means that it can be more difficult to make sense of death when it comes. Maybe this is why the holiday makes even the least superstitious among us feel spooked, on edge, like there is something bigger out there. 

It’s no coincidence that all religions have doctrines surrounding death. As Benjamin Franklin said, nothing is certain except for death and taxes – but death has been around longer than taxes, and there have always been spooky, eerie traditions to acknowledge and explain it. Whether they take the shape of funeral rituals to honour the recently passed, tales of another spirit world, a theory of why death occurs, or a holiday to put it in perspective, these traditions help us come to terms with our own mortality. Having an explanation for such a guaranteed event as death grants freedom to live with liberty.

Natasha Douglass is a fourth year at the University of St. Andrews studying International Relations and Arabic. She loves New Years resolutions, so she’s trying to read 40 books this year (currently working on #35). She also enjoys playing basketball and walking the coastal path whenever she’s not stumbling through an Arabic translation.

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