For the past two weeks, a record even for Beirut, the city has been overabundant with Halloween parties. Amidst the wicked “potions” and costume contests, it’s time to take a step back and try and understand how it all started.
Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated on October 31. Today, it represents a secular celebration, marked by strange traditions of dressing up in costumes, trick-or-treating, and decorating everything in a “spooky” manner. These traditions date back to ancient European traditions.
Two thousand years ago, the Celts celebrated their new year on November 1. The day before was witness to the festival of Samhain, the end of summer, the final day of harvest, and the beginning of the cold winter. Winter was associated with darkness and death, and it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth during Samhain. To commemorate the event, the Celts lit huge bonfires and wore costumes, typically animal skins and heads, as they read each other’s fortunes.
By the time the Roman Empire expanded to Celtic land, Samhain was replaced with Feralia, a day in the last week of October during which the Romans commemorated their dead. The death-related tributes were a basis for a majority of Halloween’s scary themes.
The ninth century welcomed Christianity into the Celtic land, and pretty much everywhere else. The Christians established an “All Saints” and “All Souls” day around the time of Halloween. Once again, the aim of the celebration was to honor the dead – bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes of angels, devils, and saints. “All Saints” day was also called “All-Hallows”, the day before it being “All-Hallows Eve”, which eventually became colloquially named Halloween.
Colonial New England was too religious for Halloween, but slowly celebrations of the end of the harvest season spread across North America. Mixing the European and Native American traditions together, a unique form of “American” Halloween began to take over. On the last day of October, public spaces would host parties where people would dress up, dance, sing, tell ghost stories, and play mischievous tricks on one another.
During that time, Americans began wearing costumes and going door-to-door asking for treats, food, or money, which established today’s trick-or-treating tradition. This was also a result of European tradition, where poor people and beggars knocked on doors and asked for food in exchange for prayers. As the population grew, Halloween moved from being a community celebration to a more private one, with the Baby Boomer generation molding it into a more youth-centered holiday.
In the late capitalist world of rampant consumerism, the holiday with the most commercial success is the holiday that stays. Today, Halloween has combined its history into one holiday where people trick-or-treat, party, dress up, decorate their homes in out-of-context scary items, and spend a lot of money on the illusion of celebration. Happy Halloween!