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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Cosmic Relevance: Spooky tradition

Today is Halloween, and it’s been one of my favorite holidays since I was a child.  And even though I love it so much, I realized that I know almost nothing about its origins.

So I investigated.

Halloween was originally known as Hallowmas, or Saint’s mass — a three-day observance and feast to honor the deceased and pray for Christian souls. As early as the 13th century, all regions of Europe had its own version of All Saint’s Day.

Equally important, the indigenous civilizations of North and Central America have been honoring their ancestors and rebirth in celebrations for around 3,000 years. When the Spanish arrived, their Christian influence hybridized the month’s practice into Día de los Muertos, a two-day period to honor the dead and respect the cycle of life.

So how did we get to our modern celebration?

In the colonies, Puritans held strong opposition to the “pagan” traditions of Halloween. However, with the influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century, Halloween slowly assimilated into mainstream culture. Its first mention in an American publication was in 1911, and by the late 1930s people from all socio-economic, religious and racial backgrounds were celebrating the holiday.

And it turns out, these observances hold direct connections to our own festivities.

From Ireland, we get the Jack-o-Lantern, hollow turnips lighting the way for lost souls, adapted to the American native pumpkin. From England, we received “souling,” an early version of trick-or-treating.  Children and the impoverished would go door to door, chanting rhymes and asking for “soul cakes,” baked for charity. In addition, from Mexican and Scottish customs, participants adorn costumes to either mock death, disguise oneself from evil spirits or create masked mischief. Lastly, Mexican tradition strongly encourages the locality to share with one another, everyone contributing to the shindig.

All in all, this period historically has centered around death, life and remembering our ancestors. So have we strayed from the true purpose of this ritual? When I asked some classmates what they associate with celebrating Halloween, the answers strongly suggested that the holiday has strayed.

Popular answers included “candy,” “pure fun” and “trick-or-treating.”  And when asked about their college celebrations, mostly one word was uttered: “partying.”

On one hand, it can be strongly argued that our secular society has lost the spiritual aspect of the holiday. Elementary schools facilitate dress-up, but omit conversations of ancestry and the universal subject of death.

Luckily, Día de los Muertos celebrations are on the rise, including processions in the Mission District of San Francisco and midtown Sacramento. These Festivals of the Altar are free and open to the public, and everyone is encouraged to bring flowers, candles and tokens for departed loved ones. In our fast-paced technological world, the organizers of the Mission procession encourage us to spend these days strengthening “our connections beyond our immediate concerns.”

Yet, Halloween still seems to unite us all. Far from its religious roots, children from all circumstances can dress up and join the merriment. I say it’s downright American; anyone can be anything.

Furthermore, in a world with school shootings, ever-increasing airport security and child predators, my hope is that this tradition continues to allow children to walk the streets safely in every neighborhood of the United States. That we can put aside discourses on high fructose corn syrup and child obesity, and trust our neighbors to give children candy. For one day the whole community can have fun together.


If you want to contact the dead with DANIEL HERMAN you can email him at dsherman@ucdavis.edu.



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