Like other busy people, most years I forget it’s Halloween and fail to obtain a giant bag of those overly-sweet, little loaves of chocolate and sugar we call candy bars. I usually fly to the supermarket and grab the last bag of candy on the shelf at four in the afternoon on Halloween.
Occasionally, I’ve stopped by the local wholesale grocery and purchased a couple boxes of Halloween gold: full-size candy bars. I’ve found that handing out full-size bars on Halloween garners me a certain neighborhood caché that is otherwise unobtainable — while some neighborhood kids just ignore adults, after you’ve handed out Halloween gold, they take notice.
“Hi, Mister B. Almost Halloween, huh?”
Let’s weigh a few facts so we don’t get carried away with all the holiday enthusiasm. According to the National Confectioners Association, contrary to the widely perceived decline in the numbers of trick-or-treaters, the practice is still alive and growing in English speaking countries across the world. Halloween candy sales have doubled since 2005. In the U.S., 90% of households buy Halloween candy (a whopping $2.6 billion worth), 70% purchase home décor and another 70% buy costumes. This all adds up to $9 billion in Halloween retail sales in America alone.
America’s trick-or-treat habits have changed somewhat over the years. Some may encounter trunk or treating, a newer fad in which a group of people (usually moms) steer their cars to a big parking lot (usually in the suburbs), form a circle with the trunks pointing inward and open the trunks full of candy, where the children go from car to car trick-or-treating. In less populated areas of the country, local businesses, shopping malls and even churches have organized trick-or-treat activities.
Halloween through history
On the history side, the timeline of Halloween flows like the mists of time through the British Isles, particularly with the Celts. The Celts believed that on the eve of “Samhain” (pronounced sow-win), the spirit world was able to contact and inhabit the physical world. Rather than a celebration, this holiday was a serious, somber affair. People dressed in animal skins, invoking the spirits of the dead against enemies, and huge bonfires were set aflame to ward off ghosts. This yearly event formed the basis for the holiday we celebrate today.
The holiday would likely have disappeared into antiquity had it not been for two popes. The Romans had almost conquered all the Isles by the time Pope Bonaventure IV created All Martyrs Day on May 13.
In the seventh century, Pope Gregory III changed All Martyrs Day to All Saints Day and moved it to Nov. 1. The night before was dubbed “All Hallows Eve,” among other names. The Irish, among other Gaelic speaking people, kept the holiday alive and brought it to America during the last half of the 19th century. The tradition gradually became known as Halloween.
Fast forward a few centuries, and we have suburban lawn displays that cost thousands, households that turn off the lights only after they’ve tossed their 200th candy bar into a sack and retail sales that are surpassed only by Christmas in its buying fervor.
A costumed affair
The idea of costumes is to appear as someone you’re not, or as someone you really are. In a word, fantasy.
Though Halloween in America has been geared toward children, costumers say adults form the largest costume user group today. In the mid-1970s, comic books culture took off as people embraced the fantastic. Movies and online gaming have multiplied the effects, and a whole subculture has emerged. Popular Halloween costumes emulate culture icons like superheroes and Disney characters. Spiderman, Captain Marvel, the Lion King and Star Wars characters are still among the top contenders, but Fortnite, League of Legends and World of Warcraft characters are showing gains.
Classic children’s costumes include witches, princesses, pirates and dinosaurs.
The holiday’s roots
Since most Americans no longer live on a farm, traditional activities like bonfires, apple cider tasting and hayrides are now enjoyed by trips to the pumpkin patch. I visited two such places in early October to investigate, and though the farms themselves could not be more different, they shared the same festive spirit. The pumpkin patch at R&B Pleasant Hill Farms north of Kelso exemplifies the old-fashioned feeling you find at that kind of small, family owned operation. It features an array of pumpkins of all types and sizes, a huge pond with wild Canadian geese and hayrides. This farm is family friendly and has an easy, country air.
When I arrived at the corn maze at Bella Organic Farms on Sauvie Island on a Friday afternoon, there were about 500 cars in the parking field. In the two hours I stayed, the flow of traffic never stopped; this is a big operation. There are two multi-acre corn mazes, hayrides, a cow train, a wine and beer garden, a grass field with thousands of pumpkins to choose from, food concession stands and at nightfall, a giant bonfire. The effect is reminiscent of a big county fair.
Halloween is still a big deal for most Americans. We like to hold on to our fears and our fantasies. Currently, I’m afraid all this pumpkin talk has left me fantasizing about is a big piece of pumpkin pie.
Ron Baldwin is a musician, photographer and writer from Chinook.