For an idea of where Halloween originally came from, look no further than the “Citizen Kane of horror movies:” The Wicker Man (no, not the Nicolas Cage version). Often cited as one of the scariest movies of all time, this horror flick tells the story of a Celtic pagan cult with some pretty sick ideas on fun activities for a May Day celebration.
The Celts – the actual historical Celts – got up to similar mischief on their New Year celebration called Samhain, what we now know as Halloween. And in Halloween’s first official involvement with PR, it got “rebranded” in the 9th century – after the Christians moved in – as something a little more, well… “holy” (in the eyes of the Pope, at least). The animal sacrifices and bonfire revelry were replaced with “All Souls’ Day,” an opportunity to say a few prayers honoring the Saints and the dead.
That being said, the holiday remained a celebration of the time each year when the “veil” becomes “thin,” and the things that go bump in the night may not be so innocuous after all.
So… now Halloween is mostly about candy. What gives?
Well, “All Souls’ Day” gave rise to a little tradition called “going a-souling” (not to be confused with wassailing – we’ll get to that in December) in which beggars went from door to door to collect “soul cakes” in exchange for promises to say prayers for the cake-givers’ dead. Heartwarming, in theory – though I wonder how many of those cake prayers actually got said.
The U.S. did not begin to celebrate Halloween in a widespread fashion until the 19th century, owing to the more Puritanical traditions present at least in New England before then. However, as the country saw greater and greater immigration, Europeans (especially the Irish) “brought the party,” so to speak, and people began to loosen up on Halloween and have a little fun. It was also around the same time that people began referring to the holiday as “Halloween,” from a poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns.6 In case you’re not confused yet, All Hallows’ Eve was yet another name for October 31st.
Beginning around the 1920’s, the custom of “going a-souling” began to evolve into what we know today as “trick or treat.” In Ye Olde Europe, those who had to leave the house on Halloween night often would wear masks or disguise themselves so as to “blend in” with the marauding spirits and supposedly avoid trouble (BOO!). Hence, Halloween costumes worn while going from door to door. The soul cakes, of course, eventually became candy and other treats, and perhaps the greatest truly American Halloween tradition was born.
Believe it or not, it was actually frowned upon in many communities before the 1950’s because “trick or treat” was viewed as extortion. I guess because at that time, people literally thought of it as trick or treat – give me a Snickers or I’ll TP your house!!
The holiday underwent another major rebrand with the Post-War Generation – the Baby Boomers. The amount of babies being born after WWII, and the somewhat, er, youthful energy behind activities like dressing up and going to door to door for candy meant that Halloween became a primary attraction for children. Marketers latched on.
Today, a full quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is bought for Halloween.10 Trick or treating is BIG business! And – if you can believe it – 35 million pounds of candy corn are sold each year11 (hmm… let’s just say I think that stuff is nicer to look at).
Modern Halloween is both scary and sweet, and more or less back to its roots of being a celebration – which is interesting given its many iterations over the years! It may give some a fright, but thankfully not our businesses, thanks to how we’ve cobbled together (as usual) traditions ranging from mass candy consumption to blockbuster thrillers to crazy and hilarious costumes.
I’d say that’s a #PRWIN.