The name Halloween comes from a Scottish derivative of All Hallows Eve, the night preceding All Saints Day. Much like the European Walpurgis Night which falls on the eve of May Day, or the Medieval Feast of Fools, Halloween is a leftover from ancient pagan holidays celebrating harvests and the changing of the seasons. However, the odd association with ghosts and witches is a bit harder to pin down.
Ancient superstitions regarding night, the movement of the stars and the moon, and the change of seasons are found in nearly every culture around the world. It was often believed that restless spirits and malicious fairies roamed the earth on these various “eves” as the doorways to the spirit world were opened during these annual transitions between winter and spring or one year to the next. The tradition of Christmas ghosts faded with the end of the Victorian period and never really took root in America but Santa Claus himself is a spirit who comes forth on Christmas Eve.
Trick-or-treating in America really didn’t begin in earnest until the 1930s. Another Scottish tradition, known as “guising”, the practice of dressing up in costumes and “begging” for treats or coins traces its origins back to medieval times when the poor would go from door to door looking for charity on All Hallows Eve. The trick part of the bargain, as Halloween is primarily a children’s holiday, is nothing more than a threat to stingy persons who might not want to give out treat. “Trick or treat” is less of a request than it is a demand; that is, either give me a treat or risk finding your trees wrapped in toilet paper!
Halloween has a long and complex history. It is filled with all sorts of long-forgotten superstitions and practices. It is an amalgam of folklore, history, superstition and tradition that emerged from the American melting pot as one of the most unique and popular holidays we celebrate. It’s the only time of year when it is socially acceptable for usually sober adults to dress in outlandish costumes and to decorate the exterior of your house with ghosts and tombstones. But more than that, Halloween is truly a community event and the only holiday in America when we open our doors to complete strangers, from all walks of life, and happily give them something out of the goodness of our hearts. It is a holiday about goodwill and charity and one that should be preserved for future generations.