York prof helps unmask Halloween traditions

Today's Halloween is really a witch's cauldron of traditions that includes a good measure of 19th-century Irish and Scottish celebrations, Christian interpretations of All Souls Day and thoroughly modern American commercialism, says Nicholas Rogers, a cultural historian at York University [Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies], and author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, wrote QMI Agency Oct. 27.

"A lot of the rituals and traditions associated with those early modern festivals have been amended but continue to persist," he says. Trick-or-treating, for example, resembles the late medieval practice of 'threshold encounters', when poor folk went to the homes of rich people on All Souls Day asking for food and drink in return for prayers for the dead.

Irish and Scottish immigrants brought Halloween to North America. "It became a kind of ethnic holiday in the middle of the 19th century but was a continental holiday by the end of the 19th century," says Rogers. He never celebrated Halloween while growing up in England but became interested in it after immigrating to Canada and taking his children trick-or-treating.

By the 1920s, Halloween was becoming commercialized, with parties for young adults, conduct books, and decorations in banks and offices. Hallmark also issued its first Halloween cards in the 1920s. "It became a kids' festival in suburban North American following the Second World War with trick or treating, which in many ways tried to take the scary bits out of Halloween," says Rogers.

"Today, it's all treating and no trickery but there was a period when Halloween was quite rough and there was a lot of vandalism that could get pretty vigorous," he say. He points to a riot in Toronto in the mid-1940s that ended after police hosed down rowdy celebrants.