Known by many other names like Samhain (pronounced sow-in) or hallows eve, Halloween is much older than America. It’s a beloved holiday by many of the masses and whilst celebrated in many countries, none do it quite so publicly as the Americans. Where did it come from and how did it become so popular there? Not to mention, why are they so well known for the ways in which they celebrate the long-standing tradition?
To answer these questions, let’s first start with some background on how Halloween came to be. Unbeknownst to many the American and most Australians, the holiday actually originates from old time Celtic traditions. Known back then as Samhain or ‘The feast of the dead’, it is said to be part of early paganism. It was believed that on the 31st of October (their New Years Eve) the veil between the living and the dead became blurred and the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth. As a result, they would light fires and wear costumes in the hopes they would scare off the ghosts. Like many Pagan holidays, Samhain was rebranded by the Christians as the religion was on the rise. In the 8th century, November 1st was named as a time to ‘honour’ all saints. It was Pope Gregory the third that renamed (or christened) the celebrations as All Hallows Eve. This name eventually became the Halloween we all know.
While Halloween has many of the same traditions and ideals that we see in the Pagan version, over the years many more were added until we got the model we have today. This model still differs from country to country, though has many more similarities than differences. For instance, in Scotland, popular activities include eating pancakes or scones covered in maple syrup with your hands tied behind your back and pulling kale stalks from the ground in an endeavour to have a romantic fortune told. You don’t see these things in America or Australia. However, Americans and the British do both engage in things like apple bobbing or ducking – still not seen in Australia. The only traditions that seem to have spread worldwide are dressing up, going trick or treating and jack-o’-lanterns (big, orange scary carved pumpkins).
Dressing up is by far the most recognised and universal symbol of Halloween and America is no exception. Thousands if not millions of dollars are spent nationwide each year on costumes and decorations. From the basics of the age-old sheet ghost through to the full kit and kaboodle with fun Halloween contact lenses. While not all Americans go as far as coloured contact lenses, many still spend months devising costumes or sourcing finishing touches. They have numerous shops that are dedicated purely to dress-ups and costumes. Participation is so popular that many of these shops offer a hiring option. It goes without saying that getting dressed up is much more popular in children when it comes to Halloween. This is fuelled by the opportunity to go Trick or Treating (originally known as guising). They head out in numbers to prowl the streets asking their neighbours for small favours. For most children worldwide, it wouldn’t be Halloween without the abundance of candy.
Teens and young adults of America may not be so inclined to head out with their costumes and go knocking on neighbourhood doors. They do, however, often throw giant parties. While the boys are known to stick with simplicity in their costumes, it is extremely common for the girls to dress in a more provocative fashion as opposed to the traditional scary or horror-themed look. This is a perfect example of how the trends and norms have changed through the years – they definitely aren’t scaring off any visiting ghosts in that look. This is said to have originated from pop culture as young women wanted to dress as their favourite celebrity. Supposedly from here, the trend grew and dressing ‘sexy’ was an acceptable costume on its own until 2000. These day’s American women will often tack the word sexy in front of any costume and make it as provocative as they like.
Halloween is obviously very important to Americans, more than other countries like Australia – but this largely comes from their culture. Halloween is not the only holiday American’s have a ‘go big or go home’ attitude towards. While no other occasion will see them wearing colour contact lenses so much, they shouldn’t be underestimated for their dedication to all of their traditional holidays. From Thanksgiving to Christmas and the Super Bowl to Labour Day they definitely go all out. Many cities nationwide are destinations to visit for the Christmas New Year period due to the sheer splendour that can be expected from their decorations, events and atmosphere. It could be said that it’s not so much Halloween that is important to American’s but in fact all holidays and opportunities to celebrate.
It’s safe to say we as Australians don’t offer much competition to the other western countries of the world when it comes to things like Halloween. It is barely celebrated and then mostly done by children for the sake of Halloween. Where are our Halloween contact lenses in Australia? That being said, supermarkets still make an effort with their capacity to buy many a cliché decoration or some novelty kitchenware for your Halloween themed baking. We don’t see the bobbing for apples, we don’t see the over the top costumes (well not often) and we definitely don’t see any kind of pagan style traditions. This could perhaps be due to the seasonal differences seen between the USA and Europe and Australia – while they are heading into winter on the 31st of October, usually we have already set our clocks forward looking towards summer. Having the cold weather and the dark nights likely adds the atmosphere that really fuels the celebrations on the other side of the world. There’s no occasion for a bonfire and kids are often trick or treating in daylight – not quite as scary as one may hope.