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Why is Hallow'een so popular in America?
October 10, 2006 4:58 PM   Subscribe

Why is Hallow'een so popular in the USA?

When I was a kid in the UK in the Sixties we might knock on a few doors and cadge money, but it was no big deal.

Now it seems that "Trick or Treat" and plastic masks, costumes, etc. have become the norm here and it is agreed that this has come to us from America.

Now I know the argument that it is all just a consumer opportunity, but at the same time I do find it strange that Americans - and even American adults - celebrate Hallow'een so much. Is it lack of holidays? Is it a sort of displacement for other religious festivals that aren't national? Is it some strange hangover from the dark forest facing the early settlers?
posted by A189Nut to Human Relations (56 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because it's fun. No, really. For the kids, it's dress-up and candy. For the adults, it's dress-up and candy and booze. For the responsible adults, it's dressing up the kids and candy. It's a win-win-win!
posted by TheNewWazoo at 5:05 PM on October 10, 2006


It doesn't cost much to fully participate, it creates no obligations (i.e. "OMG, the Hendersons sent us a Christmas card and we didn't send them one!"), it is an opportunity for adults and children alike to use their creativity and role-play and there's free candy involved. What more can one ask for?
posted by jamaro at 5:11 PM on October 10, 2006


Hallowe'en is catching on in France. In Capestang they had a whole week's festivities for kids last year culminating in "la recolte des bonbons" on 31 October.

Some French people think it is scandalous, but there are too many people having too much fun to pay them any attention.
posted by jet_silver at 5:16 PM on October 10, 2006


Ya ever notice that every costume for adult women is just, like, the word "sexy" appended to a regular noun? Like, not just a "nurse," but a "sexy nurse"? Not just a "cat," but a "sexy cat"?

And that's not even counting that it pisses off the fundies. What other holidays do they protest? You don't see people freakin' out about April Fools Day. So, anything that pisses them off is good.

Plus, there's the fact that the year is gettin' dark, so scary stuff is coming up, and that you need another social party between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Finally, there's the fact that you notice it. Halloween really isn't any bigger than, say, St. Patrick's Day or any of the random ethnic holidays in big cities. But because you hang out with people who celebrate it, it seems like everyone does.
posted by klangklangston at 5:20 PM on October 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


Reason numero uno is the candy -- if you get enough of it, it can last all year, moldering in that orange plastic pumpkin. Maybe it's a rebellion against all that fluoride in the water -- and now that English dentistry has caught up with the colonies, it's rubbed off?

There's also the Peanuts Halloween special -- don't discount the power of those rocks in Charlie Brown's pillowcase, and the Great Pumpkin, to evoke nostalgia in parents born in the 60s and 70s.

Also, toilet-papering trees and defiling cemetaries are national pastimes -- we really can't get enough -- as are horror movies (except, ironically enough, Halloween 3, which sucked).
posted by turducken at 5:22 PM on October 10, 2006


CANDY!
And booze, and parties, and dress-up.
posted by defcom1 at 5:22 PM on October 10, 2006


The adult celebration of Halloween in the US is a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be much more of a children's holiday, but in the past couple of decades, it's become one of the drunkest days of the year.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:25 PM on October 10, 2006


It's another day where you can get drunk and act like a goofball. Only on this day you can do it in a costume.

Halloween is a huge holiday for booze. It seems that it's more about the booze now than it is the candy & kids. It's another excuse for stores to have big sales, and it's the first in the end of the year holidays. Retailers love it. It's second only to Christmas in the amount of money spent.

But overall, I think that it's popular among adults because it's a socially acceptable excuse to party your ass off.

In the past 5 years, regardless of where I lived, we haven't seen much for kids out trick or treating. Last year? Not one kid. And I was living in a good sized apartment complex.
posted by drstein at 5:27 PM on October 10, 2006


It's an anti-holiday. Every other holiday is an excuse to bring the family together, worship god, or reflect on our history. Halloween is about reveling in naughtiness.

Watching scary movies, making your lawn look like a charnel house with all the rubber body parts you have strewn around, concealing your identity for the purposes of demanding candy under the threat of some unnamed 'trick'.

Basically it's the one time of the year where people can run around like maniacs and get away with it.

This, of course, explains why it so angers Fundamentalists.
posted by quin at 5:30 PM on October 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


I was the opposite of the OP. I lived in the UK last year and couldn't understand why Halloween wasn't a big deal in the UK.

I think that one issue is that in the US of A we don't really have fancy dress (costume) parties like in the UK. Halloween is the one time of year that we wear fancy dress. While I was in the UK it seemed that I was going to fancy dress parties all the time.

Also while in the UK I noticed that most kids (and adults?) wore "traditional" Halloween costumes... ghosts, vampires, princesses, etc. For example, when I suggested to my housemates that we dress up as a 4 pack of sushi, they were shocked. Even my eventual cowgirl outfit was considered a bit "out there" for Halloween. While in the US, a cowgirl outfit would be considered very tame and a ghost, vampire, princess, etc. would be considered unimaginative and boring for both adults and children. Adult females often dress slutty, adult men dress funny and kids dress (often) in their favourite TV/movie character. I saw no Spongebobs in London, but would see many many many in the US.

But when I went to fancy dress (costume) parties in the UK, people went all out! I went to a WWII party where people were dressed as nurses, doctors, bombs, army guys, etc... and those were the not-so-creative people.

I'd also venture a guess that sweet candy is more common in the UK than in the US (or at least it seemed to me to be this way), so Halloween candy is extra special.

So, this leads me to tell my Halloween in London story:

I went ALL OUT. I decorated my house with pumpkins, bats, etc. I was the ONLY house on my street to do so. I bought loads and loads of candy and answered the door in a costume. I then proceeded to hand out 3-6 pieces of small candy to each child (normal in the US)... and I don't think that my neighbours were doing so, and the kids kept on coming back to my house over and over again. Unfortunately, I ran out of candy and had to buy more. While I was out, some naughty kids torn down my decorations. That's what I get for not being culturally sensitive, I guess.
posted by k8t at 5:30 PM on October 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


We're a fairly puritain culture, and it's our bacchanalia. It's dressing up in costumes and acting weird and drinking, and the kids can get involved too. (We usually hand out candy to the kids, and MGD longnecks to the dads...)
posted by SpecialK at 5:31 PM on October 10, 2006


And one more thing. We here in the US don't drink like the people in the UK do. We need more opportunities for drinking holidays.
posted by k8t at 5:31 PM on October 10, 2006


According to the (particularly badly designed) website The History of Halloween, the Boy Scouts of America were instrumental in adopting the Trick or Treat mantra and the practice of accepting candy as a way of limiting the abuse of the holiday evening by America's youth. This was back in the 1930s.

I'd imagine there's a correlation between that event and the popularity the holiday has in the States today.
posted by thanotopsis at 5:33 PM on October 10, 2006


quin has a goodly portion of it when he says "It's an anti-holiday. Every other holiday is an excuse to bring the family together, worship god, or reflect on our history. Halloween is about reveling in naughtiness."

If it helps, think of Halloween as the US's version of Guy Fawkes Day. Where the UK gets urchins begging "a penny for the Guy" for fireworks and effigy burning, we have urchins dressing up and begging for candy with the implicit, but rarely acted-upon, threat of tricks.
posted by lekvar at 5:39 PM on October 10, 2006


Cha -- ching -- Halloween Becomes Big Business.

Just as Valentine's Day has been spurred on by commerical interests (greeting card companies, candy manufacturers, champagne/sparkling wine merchants and restaurateurs), so too has Halloween become an opportunity for promotion. As well, it is indeed a 'fun holiday.' Kids love it, adults, too.

BTW -- it continues its growth in Germany.
posted by ericb at 5:41 PM on October 10, 2006


It's fun and it involves spending a surprising amount of money on high mark-up disposable items (candy, costumes, make-up).

Oh, and it's fun. You can be anything.
posted by plinth at 5:41 PM on October 10, 2006


I do find it strange that Americans - and even American adults - celebrate Hallow'een so much.

I'm an adult, and wish other countries (such as where I grew up) had a US-style halloween - it's a great excuse for so many great things. Some it-provides-an-excuse examples:

- Many women feel socially obligated to dress respectably, yet would like from time to time to cut loose and be the gorgeous eye-candy that is turning all the heads and getting all the attention, except without the tut-tutters and "oh what a slut" crap from other women that goes with flaunting what you've got. Enter halloween, and "nice" girls have an acceptable excuse for dressing to kill, how some might deem "slutty" (read: awesome).

- It provides adults with a reason to throw a party. Much like how valentines gets people to buy roses for their other - sure, they should buy roses for their other (throw parties) on other days of the year, but realistically, many people don't get around to it very often without a little prompting. Enter halloween...

- It gives people an excuse to try outfits, or display their skills. Some people don't like the costume aspect, or lack time, and might go for safe/silly/none, some people have been dying to see how they would look as their favourite movie character or whatever, some want to build something complex/impressive, and want it to be something they can show people.

etc.

Halloween just lays excellant groundwork for a good time.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:47 PM on October 10, 2006


It doesn't hurt that Halloween isn't a celebration that's been tempered by historical revisionism (Like Columbus Day) or has religious connatations that make people uncomfortable (Like Christmas, Easter, etc) and it's not a non-event (Like President's Day). In short: it's a holiday anyone can partake of without feeling obligated, embarrassed or inadequate to the occasion.
posted by Vaska at 5:47 PM on October 10, 2006


"Is it some strange hangover from the dark forest facing the early settlers?"

The cultural history of American Halloween is a pretty damn interesting subject, and if you'd like to find out about it, check out David Skal's Death Makes a Holiday, or, for a slightly more scholarly take, Nicholas Rogers' Halloween. Real briefly... It came to the US mostly with Scottish immigrants, and it first became widely popular during the Victorian period, spread by the emerging greeting card industry. The tradition of Trick or Treating didn't start until the 20th century, and didn't really catch on until the baby boomers were kids. Which helps explain the huge cultural footprint of the tradition: anything from the boomers' childhoods is a symbol of the Golden Age here. In 1978, John Carpenter invented the idea that Halloween is connected to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain: this myth has had a lot of traction with religious fundamentalist types for some reason...

Anyway: Scots, greeting cards, baby boomers.... I think that gives you an outline of the historic reasons for the holiday's popularity.

k8t writes "I lived in the UK last year and couldn't understand why Halloween wasn't a big deal in the UK."

There's a theory that the holiday was mostly killed off in the British Isles by the Catholic-Protestant conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries, and replaced in England at least by Guy Fawkes night, which originally had some seriously anti-Catholic overtones....
posted by mr_roboto at 5:48 PM on October 10, 2006


As a single male nerd age 18-34, Halloween is easy to get behind because the theme is horror and being a little bit scared. It's way easier to get my friends excited about a Halloween party than, say, an Easter party. As a result, I'm more engaged in Halloween.
posted by Hildago at 5:53 PM on October 10, 2006


As a partial derail, I will be in London for Halloween and according to this people would get a kick out of Reese's cups. So, should I be bringing some over on the flight to handout to the kiddies on all hallow's or would it be wasted? I noticed bags of variety Reese's cups at the store and am a wondering what to do.
posted by jadepearl at 5:59 PM on October 10, 2006


Parents have an activity with their kids. The kids love dressing up as well as the free candy. Its also an excuse for singe 20-something girls to dress up as a sexy-catwoman/nurse/whatever and for drunk single guys to hit on them.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:00 PM on October 10, 2006


The comments about about how it's a chance for women to break the mold applies to men, too. Men who would never, ever do anything like it in Real Life may decide, once in their life, to wear drag. Halloween is when they can do it without shame or fear of stigma.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:05 PM on October 10, 2006


In the states, the transition of Halloween from kids' holiday into holiday-for-adults-too seems to parallel the expansion of St. Patrick's Day in recent years. My immediate guess is that, for various reasons -- demographic? cultural? increasing workload and decline of vacations? -- more adults feel the desire to engage in some old-fashioned public revelry.
posted by scody at 6:12 PM on October 10, 2006


I believe that it is the very last pagan/humanist ritual/activity/party that everyone is invited to with complete disregard for race, class or religion.

I'm a big fan of the thing and mostly because it is the only time that I will visit and be visited by ALL of my neighbors and people from surrounding neighborhoods with the same goal in mind. Getting the damn candy.

I also find it appealing because it will be the only time when the snooty/richie people will make their children say "Thank you," to me.
posted by snsranch at 6:24 PM on October 10, 2006


"Halloween is the one day of the year that a girl can dress like a total slut- and no other girls can say anything about it."

The real hardcore girls, they just go in some type of lingerie and animal ears.

-Mean Girls.
posted by ackeber at 6:42 PM on October 10, 2006


#mr_roboto: It came to the US mostly with Scottish immigrants

Actually it was the Scots-Irish immigrants who brought Halloween to the US.
Halloween arrived in North America with the early colonists. However, because of the Puritan influence in New England, it was mostly confined to the Scots-Irish of the Southern Colonies.
There has been little direct Scottish immigration to the US.

But the main influence was the Irish immigrants
But Halloween really arrived in America with the massive Irish immigration of the 1840s. The Irish brought their Celtic Halloween traditions with them and wove them into the fabric of American society.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:05 PM on October 10, 2006


Any adult that wants some fun should ride Amtrack somewhere between Boston and DC on Halloween Eve. Lots of people in contumes and stoned/intoxicated.

This whole scene was imortilized in the movie Trading Places.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:11 PM on October 10, 2006


One thing I haven't seen here yet is the fact that it's all about the suburbs. In the city, adults can have fun, but kids can't really trick-or-treat because they can't go out alone (or if they can, they're too old for Halloween to be fun anymore). In the really rural country, kids can't trick-or-treat because nobody wants to walk five miles to their nearest neighbor.

But communities in between -- suburbs -- are perfect for Halloween, and Halloween's perfect for them. The small-town feel reassures parents that the kids will be okay in groups, but population is dense enough that kids can walk between houses to trick-or-treat.

In the US, the suburbs have been growing and spreading. As the conditions become perfect for Halloween, the traditions also grow and spread.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:32 PM on October 10, 2006


The adult celebration of Halloween in the US is a relatively recent phenomenon.

I don't know how true that is, I remember my parents having or going to Halloween parities when I was a kid and dressing in elaborate costumes. I'm in my forties so that must have been in the sixties and early seventies.
posted by octothorpe at 7:37 PM on October 10, 2006


Gays have always enjoyed Halloween and have been the impetus for great celebrations. One need only check out Parade Night in the West Village, Castro or WeHo and New Orleans for the wild, fun times.
posted by ericb at 7:47 PM on October 10, 2006


I blame the ADA. With fluoride in most water systems, something's gotta rot young enamel, and a concentrated sugar burst just might be the treat to do the trick.*
*Sudden increases in diabetes and obesity from parents dipping into those plastic pumpkins will keep endocrinologists and plus-sized clothing manufacturers happy too.
posted by rob511 at 7:51 PM on October 10, 2006


The Village parade was started because of "a decrease in the celebration of the holiday, especially by children"; the puppeteer who started it "believed a puppet parade would create a sense of safety and attract neighborhood children back into New York's streets on Halloween." I don't think it was originally a piece of gay culture, although obviously the gay community has been heavily represented in the parade.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:54 PM on October 10, 2006


Halloween 3 is a pretty nasty concept if you think about it - bugs and snakes coming out of the inside of your Halloween mask, killing all the children. Pretty underrated flick. But...

mr_roboto: In 1978, John Carpenter invented the idea that Halloween is connected to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain

This was not Carpenter's idea. I'll credit him for the spread of evil, synth music in horror films, but not for the Samhain/Halloween connection, come on now.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:03 PM on October 10, 2006


It provides ample opportunity for pretentious internet users to put a useless and non-standard apostrophe in the wrong place.

Zing!
posted by kindall at 8:28 PM on October 10, 2006


Halloween is the 'friend' holiday. I can't see the day I'll have to go to my Grandma's for Halloween dinner, but I can easily foresee (and recall) going to a friend's in a fun/funny outfit, getting drunk, dancing, and generally having a good time at the friend's Halloween Party. Other than New Year's, its the only time that officially sanctions a big party. (Adults don't actually do the door-to-door trick or treating, you know.)

Also, its good inhibition loosening: Women often take it as an excuse to dress slutty or wear tons of makeup; guys use it as an excuse to wear something funny and weird. Everyone wins!
posted by Kololo at 8:35 PM on October 10, 2006


Its the closest Americans come to Carnival - in the Bakhtinian sense.
posted by vacapinta at 8:59 PM on October 10, 2006


stinkycheese writes "This was not Carpenter's idea. I'll credit him for the spread of evil, synth music in horror films, but not for the Samhain/Halloween connection, come on now."

I'll admit that I haven't done a careful historical study, but I think you'll be hard-pressed to find a mention of any connection predating Carpenter's film. Hell, the very idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic year-end festival is a questionable theory that's really only gained currency in recent years, mostly due to the pop culture ideas about the (questionable) Halloween/Samhain connection. There's certainly no tracable historic tradition connection Halloween celebrations to ancient Celtic rituals: we don't even have a clear idea of what the ancient Celts believed or what their culture was like. The roots of Halloween lie in the Roman Catholic Church.

Also: Sexy Referee?!
posted by mr_roboto at 9:43 PM on October 10, 2006


It doesn't hurt that Halloween isn't a celebration that's been tempered by historical revisionism (Like Columbus Day) or has religious connatations that make people uncomfortable (Like Christmas, Easter, etc) and it's not a non-event (Like President's Day). In short: it's a holiday anyone can partake of without feeling obligated, embarrassed or inadequate to the occasion.

It has indeed been tempered (and damaged) by historical revisionism. More conservative church congregations have been railing against it as un-Christian (and even Satanic) for many years, despite the fact that the holiday developed among Christian folks in the UK.
posted by desuetude at 10:28 PM on October 10, 2006


Everyone loves dress up.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:36 PM on October 10, 2006


If the connection to Samhain was introduced in Halloween 3, it would have been Nigel Kneale's idea - and that makes sense, given his other scripts (from Quatermass onwards)
posted by A189Nut at 12:01 AM on October 11, 2006


Mardi Gras lite for protestants.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:28 AM on October 11, 2006


[I am British]
When I was a kid (early 90s), the story I heard about why trick-or-treating wasn't very popular in the UK was that legally, there wasn't much difference between "give us sweets or we'll 'trick' you" and "give us money or we'll vandalise your house", and therefore TOTing was somewhat frowned upon by the police (no idea if this was true or not, but it's what I heard). I think, being England, it was basically seen as pretty rude to go round to strangers' houses and ask for stuff. There were also safety concerns along the lines of "omg kids out in the dark talking to strangers! Clearly they will all be raped and murdered!".
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:33 AM on October 11, 2006


I lived in the UK last year and couldn't understand why Halloween wasn't a big deal in the UK.

Because on November 5 we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night instead, with bonfires, fireworks, parties, food, drink and fun.
posted by essexjan at 6:02 AM on October 11, 2006


Well we don't have a big deal about some other similar holidays, like the day before Ash Wednesday (whatever you choose to call it) is not a big deal, except in New Orleans. So Halloween is when we get all that out of our system.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:28 AM on October 11, 2006


The adult celebration of Halloween in the US is a relatively recent phenomenon.

I don't know how true that is, I remember my parents having or going to Halloween parities when I was a kid and dressing in elaborate costumes. I'm in my forties so that must have been in the sixties and early seventies.
Hey, I'm in my forties, too. I remember kids' trick-or-treating or occasional adult parties back in the 60s and 70s, but nothing like today's commercial promotions. Not to mention the perception of razor blades or poison in the candy -- i.e., people having their kids go to kids' parties or to the mall to trick or treat, instead of around the neighborhood. Or the sense that the adults are celebrating the holiday more intensely than the children.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:42 AM on October 11, 2006


In the really rural country, kids can't trick-or-treat because nobody wants to walk five miles to their nearest neighbor.

This is incorrect. People who live in rural areas don't go to single room schoolhouses. As such, on Halloween, the parents drive their kids to the town they surround/go to school in and that's where the trick-or-treating takes place in. And it's big, or, at least used to be when I was a kid.
posted by cellphone at 6:42 AM on October 11, 2006


Halloween is marketed really well in the US to appeal to all age groups. People have fun, companies make lots of money, everyone benefits.
posted by JJ86 at 6:43 AM on October 11, 2006


More on the Scots/Irish connection: The celebrations of Halloween are derived from the older celtic festival of Samhain. November 1st was the old celtic new year and a time when the barrier between this world and the world of the spirits was throught to be especially thin. Fires were lit to scare away the evil spirits. In Scotland trick or treating is still known as "guising" (it tends not to involve the "trick" element but I would not rely on this!). We hollow out turnips rather than pumpkins.
posted by rongorongo at 7:33 AM on October 11, 2006


I'm a 20-something who lives in a U.S. city and Halloween isn't actually that big a deal in my life. I always buy candy in case kids come knocking on my door, but they usually don't -- I think their parents drive them out to the burbs. Otherwise it's just a normal night.

I got dressed up and went out to a bar a few years ago on Halloween and almost nobody else was in costume. Maybe because I like to go to sleep at a decent hour? I think the ghouls wait until the witching hour, or something.

I think the $300 inflatable yard displays I see at the mega-stores are kind of dumb, but there are $300 inflatable yard displays for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentines Day, Easter ... probably other things, too, that I'm not remembering. It' s all kind of dumb.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:34 AM on October 11, 2006


Ya ever notice that every costume for adult women is just, like, the word "sexy" appended to a regular noun? Like, not just a "nurse," but a "sexy nurse"? Not just a "cat," but a "sexy cat"?

Yes.
posted by jjg at 7:46 AM on October 11, 2006


It's the one time of the year that any boy can dress up like a ninja and not get arrested.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:23 AM on October 11, 2006


Everyone loves dress up.

Not me -- I hate Halloween. (Bah, humbug!) I'm grossed out by the ever-increasing emphasis on horror, and I don't need the excuse of a holiday to enjoy candy. But I'll take the good Belgian chocolates, if you please -- you go ahead and knock yourself out with the Mary Janes, circus peanuts, candy corn and the rest of the lousy sweets distributed on this so-called "holiday."
posted by Rash at 9:01 AM on October 11, 2006


Mmmm, I love candy corn.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:22 AM on October 11, 2006


I second Billy Bob Thornton, who grew up in Arkansas, as a good example of the sort of accent I often encountered growing up there. Johny Cash, it should be noted, is also from Arkansas, though his voice is so distinctive that it defies easy stereotyping. Arkansas accents, like any others, vary by region of the state as well as by class and the aforementioned urban/rural distinction (not to mention normal individual variation).

To me, having grown up in Texas and Arkansas, and now living in South Carolina, most Hollywood movies, when they go for a "southern" accent, assume everyone in the south sounds like a character from Gone with the Wind. Unless the character is supposed to be white trash, in which case they go with something really nasal and twangy, like the rednecks in Deliverance.
posted by wheat at 7:48 AM on October 17, 2006


Crap: I had two threads open in Firefox and posted to the wrong one. Admin: feel free to kill these two, if you care. I'll go post my comment to the right thread. Sorry.
posted by wheat at 7:49 AM on October 17, 2006


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