Halloween in the USA
History and origin of Halloween
Many believe that Halloween is a purely American tradition. Yet this is not true; the origins of the spooky season actually can be found in Europe.
How old is Halloween? Well, as old as 2,000 years approximately. This means it is one of the oldest festivals of mankind. Evil spirits and supernatural beings were involved in the Celtic festival of Samhain (translation: Summer's End), which was celebrated at the end of the harvest season, respectively, the beginning of the new year, on October 31st. For the Celts, it was a magical time during which the gate to the realm of spirits was open, and ghosts, elves, demons, and other supernatural beings walked the earth. On Samhain, the Celtic druids held large bonfires to get in touch with them.
The name Halloween was established when the Catholic Church was on the rise in Europe. To gain more influence over the pagan Celts, the celebration of Samhain was given a “new look.” The Christian feast of All Saints' Day, also known as All Hallows' Day, was moved to November 1st. Samhain was renamed All Hallows' Eve, which was later shortened to Halloween. Both celebrations, which revolved essentially around spirits and the supernatural, thus merged into a unit.
Halloween, as we know and love it today, was invented by Irish immigrants who came to the USA in the early 20th century. Not only did they bring their traditions with them, they even added to them in their new country. About 100 years ago, Halloween in the USA was truly dangerous: more and more pranks by young people occurred on Halloween night, some of which resulted in injuries as well as economic damage. Halloween was, therefore, also called Mischief Night. In order to prevent the situation from getting out of control, American cities began to promote organized Halloween activities in the 1920s.
Parades, parties, costume contests, etc., are a must during today's Halloween celebrations. Places like Anoka in Minnesota, the self-proclaimed "Halloween capital of the world," paved the way for this. In Anoka, the first official Halloween celebrations of the USA took place in 1920. Scary costumes became more and more popular in America from the 1930s on, and a huge market was built around Halloween products. In the following decades, artists, advertising agencies, television, and cinema all developed an eerie yet fascinating image of the “most horrible night of the year.”
Customs & symbols: celebrating Halloween in the USA
What's the deal with all this spooky stuff? Let's open the door to another world: the traditions of Halloween in the USA.
During the Halloween season, pumpkins are literally everywhere – on decorations, costumes, in cakes, and even in beer. The pumpkin as a Halloween symbol has its origin in the legend of Jack O'Lantern. It tells the story of the Irish blacksmith Jack Oldfield, who was so cunning that he even tricked the devil into not sending him to hell. However, being too much of a sinner to get into heaven, he was condemned to wander between the worlds with his lantern.
Originally, the lantern was a hollowed-out turnip with glowing coal as its light source. But when Halloween came to the USA, American spook fans replaced the turnips with pumpkins. These are easier to carve and abundant in the United States. Also, because pumpkins are larger than turnips, much more elaborate, fearsome faces can be cut out.
The American decoration frenzy doesn't stop at Halloween pumpkins. Windows, houses, fences, trees: nothing is safe on Halloween in the USA! Everything gets decorated, and sometimes quite extremely – from spider webs and bats to skeletons, ghosts, and witches, even entire cemeteries can be found in front yards. By the way, the typical Halloween colors black and orange stand for death and the fall season.
Needless to say that Americans not only decorate their homes on Halloween but also passionately decorate themselves. The tradition can be traced back to the Samhain celebration, too. In those days, people disguised themselves in order to remain unnoticed by the spirits. The pranksters in the early 20th century also wore masks to be unrecognizable during their tricks.
Nowadays, it’s all about getting attention: the more intimidating and elaborate a disguise is, the better! Another very American way to boost your Halloween costume is to give it a good dose of sex appeal in addition to the obligatory creepy factor.
Trick or treat
"Trick or treat" is the ultimatum of American kids haunting house after house in a sugar rush. This tradition presumably goes back to the Celtic superstition that food and beverages in front of the front door will appease supernatural beings. Until the 1950s, it was a common practice to distribute fruit, nuts, or even coins to children in the USA.
However, things changed when the candy industry recognized the potential of the spooky holiday and began offering packaged candy, especially for Halloween. And so it happened that sweet calorie bombs prevent small, costumed troublemakers from more serious mischief nowadays. Typical American Halloween sweets are Candy Corn or Candy Apples.
In the US, you may encounter front gardens covered with toilet paper during Halloween. Contemporary art? Maybe, but most of all, it's a very American kind of Halloween prank. It involves wrapping objects – especially houses, trees, or cars – in toilet paper. The bizarre procedure often also includes the so-called "egging," the throwing of eggs.
Bats embody Halloween like no other animal. The fact that those creatures of the night are associated with the celebration of horror can be traced back to the Celtic origins of Halloween. When ritual bonfires burned on Samhain, they attracted insects, which in turn are a food source for bats. Thus, the idea was born that bats appear when the portals to the spiritual realm are open.
Black cats are another Halloween symbol. This superstition dates back to the witch hunt in the middle ages. With an increasing number of alleged witches, items such as brooms or cauldrons that could be found in every household were declared tools of evil. Cats, being accustomed to staying near warm fireplaces, got under suspicion as "servants of the witches." Black cats, creatures tinged with the color of death, were particularly frightening.
Halloween parties are a rather new tradition, but basically, it's hard to imagine life without them. With the success of organized Halloween activities, the spooky night evolved more and more from a feast for children to a huge fun for adults. Parties and parades such as the famous New York Halloween Parade now enable all generations of horror enthusiasts to transform themselves into the monster of their nightmares for a short time.