Halloween has stood the test of time for over 2000 years.
It was first titled Samhain by the Celtics, who aimed to honor and celebrate the transition of spirits into the afterlife according to Jack Santino, an academic folklorist. On the Celtic calendar, the first day of the year began with Nov. 1, marking the end of Summer harvest and the beginning of a season many associated with death. Due to this, Celts believed that the evening before Nov. 1 acted as a lifting of the curtain between the living and the dead, giving spirits the freedom to roam the earth for one night.
During Samhain festivities, the Celts would conduct animal sacrificing rituals and put together bonfires where citizens would dress up and tell each other’s fortunes for the Winter ahead. This brought comfort and provided meat for the season to come. It also introduced the idea of costumes.
“Whether it’s Halloween or cosplay at a convention, [costumes] allow people of all ages to briefly experience the reality of beings that they admire or fear,” Clark College Cultural Anthropology professor Jay Fancher (cq) said.
The University of Albany said that after most Celtic territory was taken over by the Roman Empire in 43 AD, many cultural changes began to affect Samhain.
Though the Romans kept many aspects of the Celtic calendar, such as Summer and Winter solstice, Samhain was eventually replaced with Catholic All Saints Day, on Nov 1. The evening before then became known as “All Hallows’ Eve.” Eventually, this became Halloween, a combination of Hallows’ and Evening.
“In anthropology, the process of combining indigenous and outside cultural practices is called syncretism,” Fancher said.
According to Fancher, this name change majorly influenced the meaning of the holiday, turning it into a “syncretic blend” of Pagan and Christian religions growing off of fear, rather than reverence toward the deceased.
Christian immigrants originally viewed many of the Celtic beliefs as evil. Because of their Protestant views, the celebration of Halloween was very limited in New England, but with mass immigration inhabiting America, the idea of Halloween continued to adapt.
While the answer to why cultures celebrate modern day Halloween is different for everybody, “the simplest answer is tradition,” Fancher said. “We tend to enjoy and celebrate the same holidays as our parents, we replicate the experiences of our youth with our own kids.”
Fancher explained how commercialism has impacted the way we celebrate the holiday in present day.
“Local stores started stocking the traditional Halloween decorations, candy and costumes in August, whether or not we choose to participate, Halloween is all around us in the early Fall,” he said.
Tanya Luhrmann, an American psychological anthropologist known for her research regarding modern-day witches, believes that the celebration of Halloween is one method of storytelling that influences human understanding.
“We live our lives through the way we imagine ours and other ways of being,” she said during an interview with the Stanford report (cq). “The most remarkable feature of modern Halloween is that it suggests just how safe the supernatural has become.”
Another theory on why we celebrate is that we seldom face the reality of living.
“Halloween allows adults and children to openly observe, and even casually mock, things we might usually be afraid of,” Fancher said
Clark’s Activities Programming Board has been planning a variety of Halloween-related gatherings since the start of September, said Social Events Coordinator Amber Evans.
“I feel like [Halloween] is kind of the start of the holidays … people are starting to get excited about things that are coming up,” Evans said about the events occurring throughout October. “It’s also a really good way for family to be involved.”
Through these events, she said, students are able to “meet the people putting these events together behind the scenes.” The celebrations also act as an outlet for free food and beverages.
On the relevance of celebrating a holiday like Halloween, professor Fancher said, “We make culture, we maintain it, and we decide what practices survive.”
“A greatly modified version of the Celtic festival Samhain still exists and it’s culturally and commercially reinforced every October,” Fancher said. “I suspect it will continue to evolve.”