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What does Halloween really stand for? Why do we celebrate it?

Updated on September 10, 2012
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

I'm writing this hub in response to the request for a hub, "What does Halloween really stand for?" This hub is divided into addressing that question in two different ways, with the historical roots of the holiday addressed first and what Halloween "really" means to me following.

My first instinct, of course, was to think of the historical roots of the Halloween; which are believed to date back to ancient Germanic and Celtic societies, which celebrated the festival of Samhain. The festival of Samhain marked the end of the year these ancient societies viewed as the "light half" of the year (Spring and Summer). Autumn and Winter were viewed as the "dark half" of the year, and this half of the year had been associated with death. It is believed that the time of harvest, which marked the end of growing plants on which people survived (as well as the beginning of the seasons less suitable for animals kept in pastures), may have led to the association of death and "the dark half" of the year.

Samhain was celebrated with fires, around which people danced, in the hopes of encouraging the sun not to disappear. It was believed that this was a day on which the spirits of the dead were most likely close by, and on this "Day of the Dead" everyone, including the spirits of deceased loved ones, was encouraged to dance and try to encourage the sun to remain. Animals were "sacrificed". (What would have happened to them if left to live outside without sufficient food could possibly have played at least some role in this practice; although, of course, 21st Century logic cannot always be applied to ancient civilizations that believed they could encourage the sun to change how it did things.) Historians believe that people left open their doors in order to invite in the spirits of loved ones who had died. The practices of wearing costumes and serving candied apples are believed to date back to Samhain.

Later, as Christianity spread throughout the world, the holiday became "Christianized" and linked to "All Saints Day" (All Hallows Day), which is celebrated on November 1. With the eve of November 1 being October 31, that date became known as "All Hallows Eve" (or "Halloween").

And now, having addressed the historical origins of Halloween, here is (as far as I'm concerned) the REAL meaning of the day (at least for me):

It is generally known that as Christianity spread throughout the world pagan holidays were either adopted and adapted to fit Christianity, or else were abandoned. That's the thing about holidays - they can be adapted to suit the beliefs of those who choose to celebrate them. Throughout history, holidays have, more often than not, changed as mankind has changed. Depending on the perceived importance of any holiday (Christmas is, of course, the first to come to mind), there are varying degrees to which today's people even think about the origins of it.

Christians, of course, will be averse to any pagan, historical, roots of a holiday; while non-Christians will be averse to any Christian meaning placed on it. In the meantime, and among all the disdain and resentment that can be present, we have Easter eggs and bunnies associated with Easter and Santa Claus and Christmas tree angels associated with Christmas. Heck - we have chocolate candy and flowers associated with Valentine's Day (although my father, who knew I didn't like candy when I was a kid, would give me a Vogue Ginny doll each Valentine's Day). People in Canada don't link their Thanksgiving to the folks that landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.

I was born a very long time after those ancient Germanic and Celtic people lived and relatively close to 2000 years after Jesus Christ was born (give or take a few decades). Somewhere between the time when I was a child and the time I grew up, I had heard about "what Halloween USED TO mean". I saw it, though, as a matter of "that-was-then/this-is-now".

For me, Halloween was having my mother bring me to the store to select "this year's" Trick-or-Treat bag. (I hated the way many of the bags had the writing, "Trick O' Treat". I wanted the word, "or", spelled out properly.) Halloween, to me, was putting on my store-bought, Ben Cooper costume. For two years in a row I was Little Red Riding Hood, and the costumes back then were made of a kind of "netting" fabric that was scratchy. The masks were softer than their plastic successors, but they could also be a little scratchy. My older sister would make her own costume, and I enjoyed the excitement of all the preparations.

Each year my mother would make popcorn in a giant pot. (There was no microwave popcorn at that time.) Each year, she would buy lots of Halloween candy for the kids who would be coming, pack it into little bags (or sometimes tie it into particularly cute napkins), and leave the rows of little packages on the dining room table, waiting to be handed out once the doorbell began ringing. Although my brother was a baby when I was Trick-or-Treating, my older sister would bring me to the homes of six neighbors in the immediate vicinity, where I'd muster up the courage to say, "Trick-or-Treat" to friendly, smiling, grown-ups who told me how great my costume was. It was fun to be out in the dark, wearing my costume, and with just my sister. Kids were everywhere. Doors were open. Happy chatter broke the quiet of the night, and it was just a fun thing for all involved.

My mother would say how when she had been a girl Halloween was more about kids playing pranks, and she, herself, didn't particularly like the holiday. My father, a faithful Catholic and someone who usually participated in holidays, "kept a low profile" on Halloween. (He was probably the first to tell me what Halloween "used to" mean.) I was happy to have been born in an era when Halloween pranks had primarily been reduced to the inevitable smashing of pumpkins, but was otherwise about Trick-or-Treating, popcorn, and the school Halloween party. (Remember carefully wrapping those uneaten, heavily frosted, school-party, cupcakes in napkins - as if they'd really survive the trip from school to home?)

By the time I had children of my own, Halloween pranks had (at least in the areas where I've lived) become primarily a thing of the past. The occasional door-step pumpkin may not be spared, but more and more of them were surviving to the point of turning to pumpkin soup. Like my mother, and like "all" the neighbors who had small kids, I aimed to make a fun Halloween for my children and the neighborhood kids. People in our neighborhood (as with in most middle-class American neighborhoods) enjoyed taking children out to join other kids in the neighborhood in the event. One neighbor, with grown kids, always made popcorn and candy apples for the kids. (It was a tradition, and we all knew there was nothing horrible in the apples.). My home would be decorated with cute little Halloween items, and I'd pack up particularly special little bags of candy and line them up on the dining room table (as my mother had).

I have two sons and daughter, and when they were little I would place emphasis on the cheerful and bright side of Halloween - cute pumpkins, cute Halloween kittens with hats, cute-faced "ghosties", ribbons, candy corn, and the color, orange. When my sons got to a certain age, of course, they seemed to prefer werewolf costumes (although as one got yet a little older he began to lean to costumes such as an absent-minded professor). So, for a few years I did find myself, on Halloween night, walking with a "princess" or a" Puffalump" and a couple of "monsters" (previously "Care Bears" or generic animals of one kind of another).

The day of the school Halloween party was another exciting part of Halloween. It was sometimes a lot of work to figure out how to make some costumes portable enough to still "be good" at the school party. There was always the thinking up of some fun treat to send in for the party, and there were always the happy children who returned home from school and unpacked any number of Halloween projects and party foods left over.

My children are grown now, so my Halloween's are a matter of trying to make things nice for the children who show up at my door, Trick-or-Treating. Since I'm not obligated to decorate with the kind of "monster stuff" elementary-school-aged boys tend to prefer, I no longer need to have anything but the happy, cheerful, kind of Halloween decorations. I try to make my front walk and porch seem very "Halloween-y" but very bright and cheerful. There are, of course, my big pots of mums and a few pumpkins that have no faces cut in or drawn on; but for Halloween I'll add extra lights, a particularly happy Jack O' Lantern that lights up, and a few "accents" along the walk.

I enjoy making up what I like to think are particularly special little Trick-or-Treat bags. Usually, I'll make some just for the tiniest of children (being careful to add healthier and safer treats). There are a few kids in the neighborhood that I know particularly well, and sometimes I'll make up a particularly cute package for them. My aim is always to make the bags just special enough to be a little bit of a surprise to the kids. As for my own personal enjoyment of the evening, I turn down my lights, light some scented candles, and make a pot of coffee and some popcorn (for any of my relatives who happen to be there).

Anyone looking for skeltons and witches aren't going to find them at my house on Halloween. Ceramic pumpkins (with or without a cheerful, cute, face), pumpkin-spice potpourri, and Fall flower arrangements are part of the Halloween I put together for myself and my adult family members. Other than that, I pretty much put all the focus on the Trick-or-Treaters' visit to a pleasant-and-yet-"Halloweeny" home. I know there are the 5'8" 14-year-olds who enjoy the irony of being so "old" and still showing up for candy, but I'd rather see kids that age enjoying themselves and getting candy than either getting in trouble or being depressed about being "too old" to go out for candy.

Ten or fifteen years after my own children were still Trick-or-Treating, I've noticed that it is a very rare doorstep pumpkin that doesn't survive to the point of turning to soup. Once smiling Jack-O-Lanterns often do, with age, turn quite saggy and dour looking; but as with people, that's nothing more the normal aging process. Time changes everything - pumpkins, people, societies, and holidays.

Every year I wait until Halloween is only days away before I add Halloween decorations to my mums and pumpkins outside. A few days before Halloween, I'll hang put up the smiling pumpkin and a couple of other cute things, but I wait for Halloween day before putting up some the decorations that are aimed specifically at Trick-or-Treaters. There's a cute little pumpkin on a cord that I hang on my post-lantern (right near the hanging, flowering, basket) just before Trick-or-Treating is to begin. (It wouldn't stand up to any rain, and its eyes are lighted by battery power; so it can't go out earlier than that.)

Every year, as I run out at the last minute and hang the little pumpkin that has become a tradition for me, I imagine how the little Trick-or-Treaters will think he's cute as they reach my front walk. Each year, after completing that one last preparation for Halloween, I'll run back in the house, get that fresh cup of coffee, get the scented candles and potpourri going, and settle near the door to listen to for the sound of happy little voices in the darkness of the October evening.

I enjoy thinking about the fact that I still like Halloween, even though my own children are grown. With thoughts of how, maybe in some small way, I will contribute to the Halloween fun of other people's young children, I generally don't think back to the days when I, myself, was Little Red Hood or whatever else I once "was". Even though one might think I'd be thinking of when my own children were of Trick-or-Treating age, I don't think of that either. As I wait for the parade of princesses, robots, and non-descript-whatevers to show up, I'm thinking about whether I've put together enough bags, whether I should make a few more, and how I'll only give out the bags with the green lollipops after all the ones with orange lollipops have been given away first. (Sometimes a person has to add a lollipop in a color that doesn't go as well with the picture on the candy bags.)

Societies change, people change, holidays change, and even the smiliest of Jack-O'Lantern pumpkins turn dour. Still, it occurs to me that when it comes to Halloween, I still pretty much see it the same way that I saw it back in those Red-Riding-Hood days. Maybe that's because I was a young child in 1950s America, when parents who had lived through World War II devoted most of the attention to their families and when childhood (and America) was quite innocent.

I recall, as a small child, standing on the sidewalk in front on our home and feeling the sun's heat on my hair. It was a day when the sky was bright blue, and the clouds were pure white and fluffy; and I felt as if the sun's light on my head was "God's way" of letting me know how blessed I was. At the one moment, and more than at any other time in my life, I just felt pretty certain that God was there, watching out for me. Of course, I grew up to learn about what the sun really is and also to, at one time or another, question the existence of God.

Thousands of years after those Celtic and Germanic people celebrated Samhain in hopes of convincing the sun to continue to shine brightly and shower the Earth with its warmth; and long, long, after a Christian church re-defined the holiday to include the matter of saints and souls; I realize that maybe my own interpretation of what Halloween should be is my own version of trying to "fight off" some form or "darkness" and, instead, trying to add a little extra sunlight to life.

At that time of year when the beautiful Fall foliage has pretty much turned brown and fallen from the trees, and when we've turned the clocks back after a Summer of daylight savings time, there can be just a hint of a depressing mood for those of us who live in places like New England. Although November may bring the occasional warm day, the end of October generally marks the end of the beautiful Autumn weather. Those of us who live in places like New England generally think of the months of November, December, and January as "gray" months.

I'm too "modern" to think I can dance and make the sun stay a "Summer sun" through the Winter; and I've lived too long to think that all the praying in the world will make God always keep away the darker, stormier, aspects of life. Even the most faithful among us realize that religion or spirituality don't stop the Winter winds from blowing. They only, sometimes, help some people deal with them. I'm not even someone who spends a lot of time thinking about souls and spirits, other than my own soul and spirit - both of which do appreciate the need for a little more sunshine and laughter in life, especially for children.

Halloween, to me, is nothing more than that one day at the end of October, when children (and more and more these days, adults as well) dress up, have parties, get candy, and generally just have innocent fun. If the sun could think it might marvel at the way humans - regardless of the time in which they live - seem to find ways to keep light and warmth in the world. If the saints are somehow "out there", watching our Halloweens, I somehow suspect they'd delight in the ways we try to bring a little cheer to childhood (and/or the sometimes drearier days the grown-up years bring).

As for spirits and souls: Spirit is what we decide to have when we choose to brighten the cold, Autumn, nights of others. The only real "soul" that matters is our own, and mine tells me that there is something very positive about those lovingly frosted cupcakes served at school Halloween parties, and the packaging up of candies and treats just because it's kind of fun for kids to dress up and get candy.

Thousands of years after people danced around giant fires in the hopes of encouraging the sun to stay in the sky, life continues to require us to find ways to deal with sadness, illness, natural disasters, death, and people who commit evil. If happy-hearted little princesses, witches, and monsters roam our streets one evening a year, and get to feel as if the whole world of adults is working together to create a wonderful experience for them - I think celebrating Halloween is a pretty positive thing.

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