Halloween: A history of its origins, resistance, and growth

Halloween has become a massive global annual celebration in which people trick-or-treat, binge-watch horror movies, and carve pumpkins. The holiday has grown into a massive commercial opportunity, having made the American economy $8 billion in 2020 despite the global pandemic. Looking closer into the origins of the festival, it is almost impossible to see the connection between the Celtic celebration of Samhain and today’s mass celebration of all things horror. The growth and popularisation of the holiday is somewhat surprising, considering the festival has experienced much resistance (some from the groups that had originally encouraged its spread) and opposes many religious beliefs. However, it is also somewhat predictable, with much of the global spread of Halloween being credited to the cultural colonisation and imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. 


Halloween arguably originated from the Celtic New Year celebrations, with the Celts (mostly Scottish, English, or Irish) celebrating Samhain (equivalent to New Years Eve) annually on October 31st by lighting bonfires and offering sacrifices of crops and animals to the gods (thanking them for the success of the closing year and asking for fortune in the coming one). Celebrations also included fortune telling, often predicting women’s romantic futures, and offering treats outside of houses for ghosts and spirits (a popular belief being that the line between the living and the death is thinned on Samhain). As Christianity grew in Europe many Christians began resisting the holiday, labelling it as devil-worshipping and trying to undermine the festival’s celebrations. Upon failing to undermine the Celtic festival this way, Pope Gregory 3rd moved All Saints Day (which had been May 13th) to November 1st, meaning that from the 8th century onwards October 31st was both the Celtic Samhain and the Christian All Hallows Eve. The Christian festival included the tradition of the poor offering their prayers to the wealthy houses in exchange for food and beer. By the late 18th century there had been an extreme decline in Celtic followers, leaving the Christian celebration the major holiday of the date, and in 1786 Scottish poet Robert Burns coined the date Halloween.


However, there was still more religious resistance to Halloween, the competition between Christianity and the Celts now ending, many Christians began condemning the celebrations and arguing that they romanticise the devil. Nowadays Christian churches often offer alternative festivities at the same time of year to distract their followers from Halloween, such as Harvest festivals. Likewise, Jewish and Islam beliefs condemn the holiday because of its combined Celtic and Christian origins, stating that the annual tradition goes against their religious law. More resistance to the holiday outside of religion grew from the mid-1900s, with anti-Halloween sentiment peaking in the 1980s following the Tylenol poisonings of Autumn 1982. This increase in superstition around the festival led to more resistance outside of religious settings, such as schools banning Halloween celebrations and parents stopping their children from trick-or-treating.


More resistance of Halloween from one of the groups that contributed mostly to its spread came in the late 1800s with Victorianism leading to a rise in severe conservatism in Britain. Ironically, simultaneous British colonialism meant that the tradition of celebrating Halloween spread globally to many of Britain’s former colonies, and many of these still celebrate Halloween annually. Upon its colonisation Africa quickly adopted the traditions of telling ghost stories and making mischief throughout the month of October. More specifically, former British colony Kenya continues to celebrate Halloween through the Western tradition of trick-or-treating, while Hong Kong and Singapore celebrate Halloween in similar ways to America, with festivals, parties, and movies. This global spread of Halloween and its traditions represents how British colonialism has affected global culture, and the continuation of this expansion of Halloween celebrations highlights the cultural imperialism that continues even today, notably with the increasing Americanisation of global media. Australia is one of the few former British colonies that has abstained from adopting Halloween as a mass celebration, and yet the holiday is now beginning to rise in popularity amongst the Australian youth, largely in part because of the American TV shows which aestheticize the holiday. Australian writer and activist Van Badham suggests that Australian resistance to Halloween is ‘a deliberate rejection of the kind of US imperialism that suckered her generation not into witches hats and candy, but Australian participation in the Vietnam War.’ Thus, Australian resistance to Halloween is symbolic of resistance to American cultural imperialism that has taken place in the past century, and the growing popularity of the festival in Australia represents how American cultural imperialism continues today.


Featured Image: By Unseen Histories from Unsplash

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