Halloween is a holiday shrouded in darkness, linked to the supernatural and known for inspiring fear. So it’s not surprising that there are many misconceptions about its traditions, origins and meaning. Here are some of the most common.
1. Beware of razor blades in candy apples.
Police in Denver this year are warning parents about the prospect of pot-infused candy. “We advise that you should thoroughly check your children’s candy,” the department posted on its Facebook page, “and not just for homemade, opened, or suspicious items, but also for any marijuana edibles that look eerily close to mainstream candies kids eat every day.”
This is just the latest iteration of a perennial concern. A 2011 Harris Interactive poll found that 24 percent of parents were fearful that their children might be poisoned by tampered-with or spoiled treats. In fact there is little, if any, evidence that this has ever happened.
Joel Best, a sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware, has examined reports of “Halloween sadism” going back as far as 1958. “I have been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating,” Best writes. There have been examples of product tampering, but not related to Halloween. And there was one 1974 death blamed on poisoned Pixy Stix — though the 8-year-old Texas boy was actually murdered by his father, who was trying to cash in on his son’s life insurance. Other reports of Halloween sadism have turned out to be hoaxes or have had more benign explanations.
While it should be reassuring to know that contaminated candy falls squarely into the category of urban legend, it’s a sad commentary on our society that homemade treats are considered suspicious and only mass-produced candy bars are seen as safe.
2. Halloween is a quintessentially American holiday.
Traditions focused on accumulation and consumption may seem very American, and certainly an American-style Halloween has evolved. But the origins of the holiday can be traced back to a pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced “SAH-wen”). For the Celts, Nov. 1 marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the new year. They believed that the souls of the dead mingled among the living at that time. And so they associated the fruits of the harvest with death, the afterlife and the supernatural.
Later, after Saint Patrick and other missionaries converted Ireland to Christianity, Nov. 1 became All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows Day, and the eve of All Hallows became known as Halloween. It featured feasts, the blessing of the hearth, and the lighting of candles and bonfires to welcome wandering souls. It was and remains a family celebration in Ireland.
Few early American settlers observed Halloween. It was Irish immigrants in the 19th century who were responsible for bringing many Halloween customs to the United States.
3. Halloween is Satanic.
This is a concern especially for some Evangelical Christians. “Halloween is a festival for demonic spirits,” Pat Robertson said this month. “The whole idea of trick-or-treating is the druids would go to somebody’s house and ask for money, and if they didn’t get money, they’d kill one of their sheep. I mean, that was the trick. So it was serious stuff. And all this business about goblins and jack-o’-lanterns and all that all comes out of demonic rituals of the druids and the people who lived in England at that particular time.”
Actually, the devil wasn’t part of the Samhain festival celebrated by the Celts — or the druids, who made up their priestly caste. They made sacrifices in honor of the dead, but those sacrifices more often took the form of burned crops rather than animals. Contrary to some accounts, there was no human sacrifice.
It was only when the Catholic Church tried to supplant Samhain and other native holidays that the church branded practitioners of rival religions as devil-worshippers. Beliefs in the wandering dead persisted, but the supernatural beings honored by the Celts became associated with evil. And the Celtic underworld became associated with the Christian hell.
Yes, devils remain a symbol of Halloween — and you may see a few of them scurrying from door to door. But Halloween is a time when people project their fears in a safe and playful way. When else will you see images of death on suburban lawns?
4. Trick-or-treating has long been a central feature of Halloween.
Wearing costumes and demanding treats can also be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian era, when food and drink were left out to placate wandering souls, fairies, witches and demons. As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. By the Middle Ages, masked solicitations were associated with All Souls’ Day and other holidays in countries influenced by Catholicism.
But, according to folklorist Tad Tuleja, trick-or-treating did not descend directly from those traditions. By his account, the practice as we know it in the United States is largely a product of an effort by local governments and businesses in the 1930s and ’40s to promote an alternative to pranking and the rowdier aspects of Halloween. “Trick or treat has gradually replaced buggy stealing as the ‘appropriate’ way for children to enjoy the holiday,” he writes.
Indeed, early descriptions of Halloween in the United States generally don’t reference any activities that resemble knocking on doors to ask for treats. The practice became ubiquitous, however, in the post-World War II years, after the lifting of sugar rations and as suburbanization made going from house to house easier than when people lived far from their neighbors.
5. You can’t have Halloween without pumpkins.
In Ireland and Scotland, jack-o’-lanterns have traditionally been made out of large turnips. They are hollowed out, carved with a face, carried as lanterns and set in spooky places, such as graveyards. European settlers first encountered the pumpkin in the New World. Because it is already hollow, it is much easier to carve. So pumpkins replaced turnips in America.
Why have a jack-o’-lantern at all? The symbolism goes back to an old European folk tale. A blacksmith named Jack scoffed at Saint Peter and tricked the devil, and so was denied entrance to both heaven and hell. He scooped up a coal from the embers of hell in a turnip and uses it to light his way as he wanders, endlessly, between two worlds.
So the jack-o’-lantern symbolizes a marginal creature, a trickster, dangerous but fascinating, like so much else in this ancient and modern tradition of Halloween.