‘Trick or treat’: how Halloween as a Celtic feast underwent a fascinating metamorphosis
Halloween – the day for All Saints’ Day – is more popular than ever in some regions, but it nevertheless provokes mixed feelings. For one, the signal to run euphorically through all costume stores, while the other wants to have as little contact with them as possible and refuses to open the front door for an evening. But whether you like it or not: this originally Celtic party has wholly broken through in Europe after a detour through the US – albeit with a commercial twist. And that’s how it went.
Halloween is a corruption of All Hallows’ Even, the night before All Saints’ Day. The name was first used about 400 years ago, but the ‘party’ itself is much older.
There are some misunderstandings about Halloween, the biggest being the belief that the custom comes from the US. Not so: the roots are in Ireland. Michelle Dunne, a historian at Dublin City University in Ireland and specialized in Irish folk customs, is categorical: “Halloween was one of the four most important Celtic festivals,” she knows.
“The celebration of Halloween dates back to more than 2,000 years ago. At the time, it was believed that on the eve of that rite, ghosts were roaming the world because, during that night, the border with the realm of the dead was open.”
Before the Celt crawled into bed on 31 October, he/she lit a fire in the kitchen and prepared food for his/her ancestors, in case they would return.
At the end of the 19th century, Irish immigrants, fleeing from potato pests, brought their use to the United States. For lack of beets in America, they used pumpkins. Moreover, the pumpkin was more suitable for hollowing out.
In the US, Halloween gradually underwent its commercially-tinted metamorphosis, until even most adults made it a point of honor to have enough sweets to provide the candy-hunters with their trick or treat with candy. The supermarkets there jumped into the gap in the market and now offer large candy suits as bargains. In addition to sweets for the little ones, there are also treats for the adults, in the form of a glass of wine or grilled sausage, to be eaten during a chat with the neighbors in the neighborhood. It is one of the few times in the US that the American is aware of his neighbors. In Europe, that coziness is reserved for the Christmas period, and Halloween is mainly celebrated with parties.
That Halloween also broke through on the European mainland, the German-American cultural scientist Monique Scheer fully attributes to the Hollywood effect. Halloween owes its fame in Europe to American films (including, of course, John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ from 1979) and TV series. “American popular culture is omnipresent here,” said Scheer.
For European Halloween fans, the party is primarily one of horror. The chosen outfits are very often skulls, witches, and spirits. In the US, on the other hand, and despite the counter-example of famous film murderer Michael Myers, the motto is “dress up nicely” – rather an analogous event with carnival days.
Importing a party culture is not an exceptional phenomenon, says Scheer. Christmas party is really nothing more than a fusion of various festivities of international origin. And that is also how Halloween is everywhere again in Europe – in a new shape.
The Celtic feast is back from never having been away.