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The Great Pumpkin: A UCLA History of Halloween

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By Jack Feuer

Published Oct 7, 2015 8:00 AM


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Photo by Carin Krasner

Henry Kelly's favorite Halloween costume ever: "Six years ago, my grandson, who was 7 at the time, dressed up as a paleontologist. And my daughter dressed up as Sarah Palin carrying a gun and a baby."

Kelly, an acclaimed medieval scholar, author and UCLA emeritus (his official title is Distinguished Research Professor), would not be surprised in the least to learn that last September, the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that 7 out of 10 Americans indicated they were going to celebrate Halloween. In all, revelers in the U.S. were expected to spend just under $7 billion — which was $1 billion more than they spent on Halloween in 2010.

Fright Night Fun in Westwood

UCLA doesn’t have any long-standing Halloween campus traditions, although there is one campus activity you can count on every year: shopping. The 38th annual Ackerman Monster Sale, this year held on the Wednesday before Halloween, takes place on October 28. It’s the UCLA Store’s biggest day of the year and always a fun event.

But Bruins celebrate All Hallows’ Eve as enthusiastically as the rest of the country, and every year there has been no shortage of things to do and see in Westwood come pumpkin time.

Past Halloween treats, for example, have included UCLA Recreation’s “Freaky Friday Halloween Walk” in Drake Stadium in 2010. Visit www.recreation.ucla.edu for more information on any Halloween-themed events or programs in 2015.

Also in 2010, the Bruin women’s volleyball team offered free admission to everyone who attended their match in a Halloween costume. Visit www.uclabruins.com to learn where the Bruins will be setting and spiking this season.

This year the UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen a pioneering 1930 treatment of the "haunted house" genre called The Bat Whispers — cited as an influence by Batman creator Bob Kane. Visit www.cinema.ucla.edu for tickets.

Many Bruins have spent the Sunday before Halloween volunteering or competing at the holiday-themed L.A. Cancer Challenge, an annual 5K/10K run-and-walk event at the Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills to benefit the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. Many racers wear their finest Halloween costumes, but you can wear ordinary sweats, too. To learn more, visit www.lacancerchallenge.org.

So it’s a virtual lock that somebody will be scaring up something worth checking out this year as well. Make sure to buy your costume early and keep checking www.happenings.ucla.edu for this year’s Halloween events on and around campus.

The 2015 Halloween spending breakdown, per the NRF, includes: $2.1 billion for candy; $1.9 billion for decorations (more than any other holiday except Christmas); $1.2 billion-plus for adult costumes; $950 million for children's costumes; $330 million for greeting cards.

Oh, and $350 million for pets' costumes.

This is not your grandfather's Halloween. It's not even your great-grandfather's Halloween. This is Ready for Prime Time Halloween.

Sure, Americans spent a lot more last year on Valentine's Day ($18.9 billion) and Mother's Day ($21 billion-plus), not to mention the $600 billion-plus we shelled out during the Christmas holiday season. But all those holidays include gift-giving, which of course is not included in Halloween traditions (treats don't count). And as the NRF spending figures so dramatically illustrate, Halloween has gone big-time in the U.S., graduating from a primarily children's holiday to one celebrated as much, if not more so, by adults.

But what, exactly, is Halloween? Where does the holiday hail from, why is there such a strong supernatural element to it, and how did it evolve from a colorful but relatively minor-league American celebration to an iconic autumnal festival? The answer is: It depends on whom you ask. There is general agreement among scholars and historians about much of Halloween's history, but not all of it, including precisely when, where and even how it began. Fortunately, UCLA boasts two preeminent experts on mythology and folklore who have studied the holiday's history for years: Kelly and Joseph F. Nagy, professor of Celtic folklore and mythology. We turn to them to take us back in time to discover how Halloween came to be.

When the Saints Came Marching In

Some argue that Halloween's origins stretch all the way back to ancient Rome; others that its date and basic memes are Christianized versions of pagan rites. There are even those who have argued that the Druids had some mysterious hand in Halloween.

"The Druids? Nobody knows what the Druids were doing," says Kelly about that and all the other possible pre-Christian progenitors of Halloween. "Anything is possible, but there's no proof for it."

Kelly notes that many Halloween history hunters accept the mistaken contention, by famed Scottish social anthropologist Sir James G. Frazer in his iconic 1890 exploration of myths and folk legends, The Golden Bough, that October 31 was the Celtic pagan festival of death. Long-ago Celtic traditions do appear to echo throughout the Halloween canon. But there is a difference between influence and origin. Halloween, Kelly asserts, "is not a pagan celebration."

And despite concern among some Americans of faith about its spookier elements, there's nothing diabolical about the way Halloween is celebrated, adds Kelly (who, as the author of Satan: A Biography, certainly qualifies as an authority on what is and isn't satanic).

In fact, the night of October 31 is the evening before the Christian festival called All Hallows' [Saints'] Day on November 1, and our Halloween took its form in particular from the way in which the night was celebrated in Celtic lands like Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The word "Halloween" is a Scottish variation of All Hallows' Even (or evening) and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used in Old English as far back as the 16th century.

"In the second half of the first millennium A.D., as the cult of the saints grew in western Christendom, the Church established November 1 as the day on which to celebrate all the saints, with honor given especially to those saints who did not have their own feast days," Nagy explains. "As is true with all Church feast days, the observance of All Saints' Day — which has historically involved fasting as well as special prayers and rituals — begins on the evening of the preceding day."

In addition, the Church subsequently established November 2 as All Souls' Day, which Nagy explains was "a time to commemorate and pray for those who had died in general, particularly those who might still be experiencing a process of purification before they could be admitted into Heaven. ... While the notion of the souls of the dead surviving as ghosts was hardly sanctioned by the Church, the doctrinal concept of Purgatory, an intermediary stage between earthly existence and heavenly afterlife, added impetus to long-lived popular beliefs in and stories about the restless 'undead.' "

In the U.S., "There was no Halloween celebration or even any idea of Halloween until the 19th century, when it came with the Irish immigrants," says Kelly. "They brought two features: vandalism, unfortunately, and parties. There used to be a lot of fortune-telling parties and [apple] dunking and the like."

Still, almost from the moment it became part of our national consciousness, the eve of All Saints' Day drew media attention. Harper's Magazine published an article called "A Legend of All-Hallow Eve" in November of 1879 — but by the middle of the 20th century, Halloween had become mostly a children's holiday, shorn of religious references and emphasizing fun and fantasy.

And something else: ghosts, goblins and witches.

Things That Go Bump in the Fall

Halloween's supernatural side mesmerized the U.S. probably from the moment the first Irish or Scottish boot hit the first American shore. Soon enough, myths about what was and what wasn't a Halloween story sprang up.

For example, many people may still associate the holiday with Washington Irving's famous 1820 short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in which a headless horseman said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball during the Revolutionary War terrorizes the countryside.

Sure sounds like a Halloween tale. Except it isn't.

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"My wife and I recently visited Tarrytown, New York [upon which the fictional town of Sleepy Hollow is based]," Kelly recalls. "And North Tarrytown changed its name to 'Sleepy Hollow' in 1996 because that's where the legend was set and Washington Irving was buried. Even the guides said they think the legend of Sleepy Hollow is connected with Halloween, and the stores are filled with Halloween knick-knacks. … But Washington Irving was living in England when the story was first published. It has nothing to do with Halloween."

So where did Halloween's otherworldliness really come from? Again, accounts vary, and nobody knows for certain.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, notes that "The last evening of October was 'old-year's night,' the night of all the witches, which the Church transformed into the Eve of All Saints." Kelly asserts that "the idea of Halloween first significantly hit upon the mind of the English-speaking world, I would say, in 1786, when [Scottish poet] Robert Burns published his poem 'Halloween' [in which he explained] what the custom of Halloween was in western Scotland. It was thought that there were witches and devils and fairies abroad on that day, and people had a lot of parties. And his poem is all about these parties, which were basically for courting couples. For instance, they'd go out in the backyard and pull out a cabbage and knock off the dirt and look at the root structure, and that would give them some indication of what the couple would be like in 50 years."

Medieval matchmaking aside, Nagy considers that some elements of Celtic tradition do parallel this singular aspect of Halloween. He observes that "the eve of November 1, or 'Samhain' as it is known in Irish — the word can also mean 'November' — or 'Caland Gaeaf,' the first day of winter in Welsh, was considered to be a temporal 'space' in which humans were more likely to run the risk of encounters with supernatural beings, more active at this time than they are through most of the rest of the year."

Nagy adds, "In-between times — i.e., times of transition — characteristically become infused with a sense of the supernatural, ranging from the religiously defined (e.g., 'saints,' 'all souls') to the disquietingly undefinable (things that go bump in the night)."

Which leads us to the most famous (and colorful) of Halloween traditions: dressing in costume and going door-to-door demanding treats and threatening tricks.

"I'm the most horrible!"

Again, local custom may have come into play here, Nagy surmises, because "fall, particularly November, was when especially younger adult members of the community would return from the activity of herding animals in upland pastures or from agricultural labor undertaken away from home … so this was a time when younger members of the community, having temporarily become strangers to it, would return home, often participating under the influence of tradition in performative rituals, traveling from house to house in costume, not always with benign intent."

The practice of dressing up and going door-to-door for food or money was commonplace in general during holidays in medieval Europe.

In our country, however, both costumes and trick-or-treat have been distinguishing characteristics of Halloween beginning in the first half of the 20th century. One of the earliest depictions of American Halloween tradition in the movies appears in the legendary 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, which takes place in 1904.

On Halloween night, young Tootie, played by Margaret O'Brien, is trick-or-treating in costume with her friends, wearing a fake nose, eyeglasses and beard. She separates from the group and creeps up on the forbidding home of the Braukoffs, a family young Tootie suspects of all sorts of sinister things (mostly because they keep to themselves and, well, Tootie has what you might call a supersized imagination). Overcoming her fear, she creeps up to the door and knocks.

When Mr. Braukoff opens the door, Tootie "tricks" him by throwing flour in his face and — thinking she's just about killed him — runs away. When she's hailed by the other kids for her bravery, she beams and exclaims, "I'm the most horrible!"

So our version of trick-or-treat, in some form, also goes back a ways, albeit perhaps not as far as Halloween itself.

Kelly says, "The first reference to it occurs in a magazine in 1939, when the author talks about the 'age-old' salutation 'trick or treat' — but this is the first recorded instance of it. It was quite clearly a device to defuse the vandalism. And it didn't exactly work, because people [continued to] soap windows and TP trees and so forth."

But not so much anymore, which may be one reason why Halloween is more popular than ever in the U.S.

As American as Pumpkin Pie

About 13 years ago, the Kellys visited Sydney, Australia, and a little girl no more than 8 years old came up to Henry and said, "You guys are from America. You're so lucky. You have Halloween!"

One factor boosting Halloween's approval ratings may be that in this country, it has shed its religious affiliation and, just as important, much of the vandalism previously associated with the holiday. As Nagy notes, "Perhaps it provides us with a pleasingly inoffensive — to many or most of us, if not all — secular and nondenominational way to play with the concept of 'otherworld.' "

Another impetus likely comes from the timing of the holiday, the unofficial kick-off of the holiday season.

"Halloween has utility as a useful dry run/harbinger — both social and commercial — for the more intense activities of the coming round of festive [holidays]," Nagy adds. "From my childhood, I remember excitedly thinking that if Halloween is here, Christmas can't be that far away."

No doubt all that plays a part. But the real secret behind Halloween's success may be the undercurrent running through what that little Australian girl told the Kellys: Halloween is just a hell of a lot of fun.

It's a lot of fun, in large part, because the vandalism associated with the holiday has dissipated, a consequence of Halloween being "marketed" by the media, Nagy says, to American families in the mid- to late 20th century. Today, it's safe to say few, if any, people answer their doorbell on October 31 and get flour thrown in their face.

And Halloween is no longer just for kids, as the National Retail Federation discovered in its latest survey. (And we're not even counting all those costumed pets.)

"Now it's just indulging in all sorts of fantasies," says Kelly. "It's just a joyful parade and celebration, a homegrown holiday, like Thanksgiving."

This ancient Christian celebration's long, strange trip across oceans and cultures is "a remarkable demonstration of both the shelf life of folklore and of its adaptability to changing circumstances and new environments," Nagy concludes.

Halloween circa the early 21st century, it seems, is for everybody.

Joseph Nagy's favorite Halloween costume ever: "Very sweetly reflecting the fact that she grew up hearing the stories of her folklorist father, one of our daughters, when she was still very little, devised a costume for herself as a harpy — a demonic, birdlike being of Greek mythology. Frankly, I think she looked more like a duck."

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