Rooted in tradition, the face of Halloween continues to change

Mark Safford
Mark Safford, co-director of this year's Bare Bones Productions' Halloween show, paints his angler fish. The light on the puppet is used in the Bare Bones production of "Carnetheria" for a shadow puppet display.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

As Halloween approaches and people begin loading up on candy supplies and selecting costumes, it's almost as traditional for older people to begin complaining that Halloween isn't what it used to be.

In a moment of grouchiness I found myself pontificating in just that manner. Then I decided to gather a few facts to bolster my argument. But I soon discovered, when it comes to Halloween, facts are open to many interpretations.

When I was a kid, we did Halloween right. In Scotland there was none of this trick or treating stuff. We called it "guising," dressing in costumes and going from door to door to perform songs, or tell jokes. The neighbors would give us nuts, small coins, and occasionally hard candy.

It was grand fun, yet in the dark damp Edinburgh streets, there was always a ghostly element in the air, unnerving, but not scary. It was a comfortable creepiness.


Jeanne Kilde
Jeanne Kilde, Director of the Religious Studies program at the University of Minnesota says Halloween has been many things to many people over the centuries, and as such may not really be a tradition
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The creepiness is a feeling that goes with the season, the shorter, colder days. Storyteller Loren Niemi said there's also the ancient juxtaposition between Halloween on October 31 and All Saints Day on November 1.

"The idea was that at All Saints Day, the door between the worlds would open slightly and spirits could pass back and forth, and the question was: do you welcome them or do you turn away?" Niemi said.

Halloween was when the ghosts and goblins, the witches and wraiths cavorted, then turned tail at the arrival of All Saints Day. Niemi said it was a time for stories about living the kind of lives which might consign you to one camp or the other in the afterlife. Niemi said the story tradition is not so evident now, but it's there in the costumes.

"We've now become the stories," he said. "We act out the stories."

But he admits it's not the same. He said what we've lost has been a sense of why these stories were important, and what we've gained is a whole lot of sugar.

Niemi said there are similar traditions in many cultures, including the Day of the Dead celebrations. In fact, according to Jeanne Kilde, the director of the Religious Studies program at the University of Minnesota, it's actually quite hard to nail down a single root of Halloween.

"I think you have to think about it always as not a tradition, but a group of practices that come together at various times among various groups."

"I think you have to think about it always as not a tradition, but a group of practices that come together at various times among various groups," Kilde said.

Kilde said what's become the U.S. Halloween grew out of the Irish Celtic Samhain practice which marked the end of the year. She said All Saints Day was an attempt by the Christian Church to control these Pagan rituals, an effort which wasn't entirely successful. She said this led to the creation of All Souls Day which legitimized a celebration of memorializing the dead.

But it didn't kill off Halloween, which somehow found its way across the Atlantic.

"There is evidence of efforts to celebrate in a kind of Halloween way during the Puritan period, during the Colonial period," Kilde said. "Puritans tried to suppress it entirely because they just weren't interested in celebrating anything."

The history of Halloween is filled with instances of one group trying to control another, and that's where the tricks come in. Just as some people believe Halloween opens the door between this world and the next, Kilde said some believe it loosened the bonds of polite society.

"They become efforts by parts of society that don't normally get to articulate their differences by acting out, essentially," she said.

This could mean egging houses, overturning outhouses, and in the extreme, torching empty houses as has been a Hell Night tradition in Detroit. Arguably, the habit of bribing minor tricksters with candy has succeeded, and the tricking subsided.

Jeanne Kilde said Halloween hasn't really been an important part of the church calendar for centuries. She also said its importance can be seen in several ways, and can change markedly depending on how you decide to trace its origins.

"So the religious piece fell out maybe in the 16th century: what does that mean to us today? That we should try to revive that religious piece?" Kilde said.

Kilde said contemporary Wiccans are trying to revive that spiritual piece of it, but for most American citizens, Canadian citizens and people in the west who are celebrating Halloween, it's a secular holiday.

"It's just a secular activity: for fun, for play, for transgression, for trick or treating," she said.

And, of course, for making money. The National retail foundation estimates Americans will spend an average of $66.28 on Halloween supplies this year, coming to a total of $5.8 billion.


Andrew Wagner
Andrew Wagner is co-director of the Bare Bones Productions' Halloween show this year along with Mark Safford.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

For the last 17 years, Bare Bones Productions has presented a show outdoors in Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul. The show this year, called "Carnetheria," includes huge puppets, fire artists, aerialists, and a 40-piece orchestra.

The show this year is based on Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," but Mark Safford, this year's co-director, said it also draws on Halloween sensibilities.

"There's this very profound sense that the warmth of the world is leaving, or the life is leaving," Safford said. Safford said the Barebones show marks the coming of winter, a time he said in Minnesota brings a sense of impending loneliness. Through its 17-year history it has always included a ritual to remember the dead. Co-director Andrew Wagner said that element is vital.

"This is a thing that started as a ritual with a hundred people that came out to see the change of the seasons and a remembrance type ritual," Wagner said. "It's sort of maintained that, even though [it's] grown to audiences of 2,000 or more."

Wagner and Safford said there is comfort and an excitement in producing their show in the woods which audiences share. There's is a Halloween of old and new, with a touch of spirituality, a touch of activism on behalf of the planet, and a lot of fun. Safford said members of Bare Bones take on different roles in the show each year. Safford said it means that the flavor of the show is always changing.

"Really changing," said Wagner. "Because this is the first year where there are two male directors so we have giant robots and flaming hornets. They asked for it."

So there you have it. Spirits, stories, Puritans, puppets, robots and sharks. Halloween may not technically be a tradition, but it certainly is in the eye of the beholder.

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