Halloween (October 31st) is a holiday observed in Anglo America and elsewhere. No one gets off from school or work, but near sunset children dress up as witches, ghosts, cats, cartoon characters, superheroes, and so on and go door to door asking for candy. Some people decorate their house – or visit a haunted house. It is a time for costume parties – and for racially insensitive costumes.
The holiday has nothing to do with the Mexican Day of the Dead, an older and more serious holiday to honour the dead that takes place two days later. Nor does it have much to do with All Saints Day, the religious holiday it is the eve of and named after (Halloween = All Hallow’s Eve): Halloween came first.
You can tell it is as old as dirt:
- it features witches and ghosts (pre-Christian beings) and
- it starts at sunset (a pre-Roman practice).
It goes back at least 2,000 years, back when it was New Year’s Eve in Britain and Ireland, back before the Romans brought their calendar. That was the night when the ghosts of the dead came back to earth and Druids (priests) could see into the future. It was called Summer’s End (Samhain, said “sah-win”), the last night before the dark half of the year came. People dressed up as animals and gathered round huge bonfires, telling fortunes and sacrificing animals.
The holiday does not appear in North American almanacs till the late 1800s. The Puritans were against it as a pagan holiday. Some Christians still are. But after the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852), millions of Irish fled to North America, bringing the holiday with them. So did the Scottish. By 1911 it was a mainstream American holiday.
Trick or treat: When children ask for candy they say “Trick or treat” and hold out their bags. If they do not receive a treat, like candy, they are allowed to play a trick, like throw eggs at your house or toilet paper in your trees (rarely done in practice). Although dressing up and asking for candy goes back to at least 1911, the catchphrase “Trick or treat” did not start catching on till the 1930s.
Jack o’lanterns: a hollowed out pumpkin with pieces cut out that make a face when a candle is put inside. In America such jack o’lanterns go back to at least 1834, before Halloween caught on. By 1866 people made them for Halloween – but it seems they also made them for Thanksgiving.
Racially insensitive costumes: Some, particularly white university students it seems, will dress up as Barack Obama or Kanye West or some other famous black person and then, supposedly for the sake of realism, put on blackface. Or they will wear Afro wigs or dreadlocks. Or an American Indian headdress. Or some ethnically stereotyped costume. Supposedly to “honour” said ethnic groups. But given the year-round racism of whites, it can come off as mockery, as a racist joke, no matter how it was “meant”.