Dressing up is a really important part of human life. We don’t dress up only in everyday or function clothing, but in the global culture we also dress up as someone else for certain occasion. This goes for almost every culture and every space in any time. The people who lived in African tribes used to wear masks for certain rituals, while others wore masks on holidays.
Wearing a mask is something embedded in the human spirit. It’s context is wide and somewhat unclear. By wearing a mask, you become someone else. In ancient times, it was a normal thing to wear a mask when you wanted to do something or take on a role. To give you an example, certain groups used to wear masks or paint their bodies (another form of the same concept) when they would go to war. This way, the war spirits would take over their bodies, or better said, they would become these war spirits and their victory was easier to obtain. In a way we can say that this is associated with unexpressed guilt, since it was acceptable to do certain things while wearing a mask that were otherwise unacceptable. But we can’t dig too deep into this, since we can’t exactly know how people thought in those days.
Halloween is one of the most known and celebrated costume-related holidays in the Western world today. It’s not similar to other holidays where people dress up such as the Italian carnival or the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Halloween is a rather somber holiday. It originated in the old Celtic civilization (today’s Ireland and Scotland),even though it seems that it’s actual origin was in the Bronze Age. The Celts would call it Samhain (pronounced sah-win). At that time, October 31st marked the end of the old year; the end of the summer and the death of the sun; hence the whole death-element that Halloween has attached to it. In short, it was believed that people could actually come into contact with the spirits of the other world in this night. The holiday itself derived many legends and customs, the most known is of course the Jack O’Lantern pumpkin, which originated in the custom of farmers putting candles in turnips to light their way home from the land they worked. Many years later, when the immigrants came to America, they kept the custom, just that they used pumpkins.
Let’s come back to the dressing up part of it though. It appears that the custom of dressing up appeared in the Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing. By the way, an alternate name for Halloween is All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowmas (resembling the name Christmas). However, it was only in the late 1800s when people started throwing costume parties.
The tradition of trick-or-treat-ing appeared as we know it in the 1930s, when, because of many violent happenings on the night of Halloween, the American authorities decided to transform the holiday into a kid’s holiday. However, the custom has it’s origins in the late medieval concept of “souling”. Souling means that a poor person would go from door to door on Hallowmas (November 1st) to ask for food. That person was given food in the return of his prayers on All Souls Day (November 2nd). Of course, there is a big Christian, especially Catholic influence there, which mixed the old pagan holiday with the Celtic New Year, the holiday of the dead and All Saints’ Day.
It’s really hard to actually trace the history and concept of Halloween without having to constantly go back and forth, since traditions, concepts and ideas seem to overlap. They are all tight up to each other in a way. Souling became trick-or-trat-ing, now done by kids in costumes. According to several sources, people used to dress up on Halloween to scare the bad spirits away or to please them. It is kind of complicated to understand this: did they want to scare them or to please them? Probably both, but at different times in history. It would make sense if we agree that the people of the past thought this night was a gateway to another world, and that they would do anything to avoid creatures from another world, by either scaring them away (although if you wish to scare a ghost away, why dress like one?) or to make them think you’re one of them. Just imagine what this would have been like. There are very few documents to speak about Halloween from the past.
The oral character of Halloween makes it hard for us today to make clear sense of it. As you can see, there are so many things mixed here that it’s hard to see what the motivations behind it are. And what’s interesting about it is that Halloween keeps changing and becoming more and more of an International holiday, popularized by US, British and Canadian media outlets.
We’ve put together a collection of vintage Halloween photos, and they seem really weird and different from what Halloween looks like today! Also, the fact that we associate this kind of pictures with film noir and other such forms makes them even more weirder. You can see from witches to unclear costumes, and what you can feel is that even though these photos were taken about 100 years ago or so, even in those days people would see Halloween differently than how we do today.
It remains to be seen where Halloween is heading in the future, but one thing is for sure: it’s a more complicated holiday than we think and it’s really the expression of our history and the way we changed and evolved from ancient times to the modern era.
Fraquoh and Franchomme
P.S. What do you think of Halloween? Is it celebrated where you live? Share your thoughts in the comments below!