Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween
by Lisa Morton
Hardcover, 229 pages
Published: October 15th 2012 by Reaktion Books
Every year, children and adults alike take to the streets dressed as witches, demons, animals, celebrities, and more. They carve pumpkins and play pranks, and the braver ones watch scary movies and go on ghost tours. There are parades, fireworks displays, cornfield mazes, and haunted houses—and, most important, copious amounts of bite-sized candy. The popularity of Halloween has spread around the globe to places as diverse as Russia, China, and Japan, but its association with death and the supernatural and its inevitable commercialization has made it one of our most misunderstood holidays. How did it become what it is today?
In Trick or Treat, Halloween aficionado Lisa Morton provides a thorough history of this spooky day. She begins by looking at how holidays like the Celtic Samhain, a Gaelic harvest festival, have blended with the British Guy Fawkes Day and the Catholic All Souls’ Day to produce the modern Halloween, and she explains how the holiday was reborn in America, where costumes and trick-or-treat rituals have become new customs. Morton takes into account the influence of related but independent holidays, especially the Mexican Day of the Dead, as well as the explosion in popularity of haunted attractions and the impact of such events as 9/11 and the economic recession on the celebration today.
Trick or Treat also examines the effect Halloween has had on popular culture through the literary works of Washington Irving and Ray Bradbury, films like Halloween and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Simpsons. Considering the holiday in the context of its worldwide popularity for the first time, this book will be a treat for any Halloween lover.
Lisa Morton is the queen of Halloween. I would absolutely love to be this brilliant lady’s friend! Imagine racking her brain for all the fun folkloric facts? A reader can dream, right?
This is the definitive book of Halloween – there are no comparisons. I’ve been a Halloween enthusiast my entire life and there is no other literary works in league with Morton’s ode to Halloween.
Halloween can be traced to the Celtic Irish festival of Samhain. Morton debunks the notion that this has anything to do with Satanism–Samhain means “end of summer,” and was a festival that celebrated the harvest. Over time it developed that the Celts believed it was also a day that the dead could pass over into the world of the living, but there was never anything evil about it. She also debunks the notion that Halloween had anything to do with a Roman festival called Pomona.
She notes that some histories of the day are completely wrong, including one that mistakenly believes that the Romans conquered Celtic Ireland.
Halloween in the early British days was centered around fortune telling. Much of the ways the Scottish did it were listed in Robert Burns’ poem “Hallowe’en” (the word Halloween is an abbreviation of “All Hallow’s Eve, but the correct apostrophe has been dropped over time). Once the holiday began popularity in America, though, fortune telling was replaced by pranks. Many of the Irish traditions did come over, though, including the Jack O’Lantern: “The legend of Jack, the blacksmith who outwits the Devil, appears in hundreds of variants throughout both Europe and America, and typically ends when Jack dies and, being denied entrance to either Heaven or Hell, instead wanders the earth with his way lit only by an ember held in a carved-out turnip.” Pumpkins, being larger and plentiful in the New World, became the replacement for turnips.
Between the great wars, Halloween became less of an adult holiday and more of one for children. The tradition of trick or treat, meant to lessen the widespread vandalism and pranking, began to take root in the 1920s, with Anoka, Minnesota the first American town to hold an annual Halloween parade.
Morton discusses how other countries celebrate the holiday, with those that are primarily Catholic emphasizing All Saints’ Day. Mexico, of course, has Dias de los Muertas, the Day of the Dead, which has influenced Halloween with its skull imagery. Interestingly, in Israel and Australia the holiday has never really caught on.
Morton is in a league of her own. Part thesis, part love letter – this is the homage to Halloween that we all need.