For a lot of us, Halloween evokes images of skeletons, spooky pumpkin carvings, sweets and all the other foods we enjoy when we celebrate the occasion. While in our society we tend to associate death with feelings of grief, sadness and fear, Halloween is a day which is, on the contrary, filled with joy and celebration, offering us a different way to relate to our passed loved ones and the idea of death. Almost all celebrations are centered around food and Halloween is no exception: we consume more sweets on this day than on any other day of the year. How did the tradition of Halloween become so widespread? What kind of relationship does this day encourage us to have with death through food and sweet festivities?
Celebrations of Halloween started a long time ago, and the version of it we have today is a blend of multiple traditions. We can trace back Halloween to its ancestor, the festival of Samhain, celebrated by the Celts in what is now Northern France, Ireland, England and Scotland, many centuries before Christ. Samhain was linked to the seasons, celebrating the beginning of winter. The rituals that the Celts practiced were meant to help people relate to their ancestors and the past. It was believed that the spirits of dead people came into our world on the eve of that day, and the Celts gave them offerings of food and wine.
Shortly before the birth of Christ, the Romans conquered the Celtic lands and the festival of Samhain merged with the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess of orchards and apples. The apple was considered to be a symbol of love and fertility by the Romans. This celebration took place on November 1st after the harvest was successfully stored away. Coinciding with the time the festival of Samhain took place, the two traditions became one.
Finally, the blend of these two traditions met Christianity, which spread across the Roman Empire through the fourth century. The Samhain/Pomona traditions were quickly assimilated to the Christian celebration of All Saints and All Souls, honoring the saints. The food and wine were replaced with “soul cakes”, which were pastries and bread, given to the poor people in the towns. This charitable tradition quickly changed into young men going from door to door singing songs and asking for ale, money and food – we can probably trace back trick or treating to this tradition.
In earlier traditions, people would wear disguises to frighten unwelcome spirits. On All Saints and All Souls day, villagers were also encouraged to dress up, but this time to honor the saints. We can see the similarities of these traditions with our modern day practice of wearing costumes on Halloween.
Death, of course, transcends time, space and different cultures, and the United States is not the only one to have a tradition of celebrating the dead. For example in Mexico, people celebrate the Day of the Dead, which has Aztec and Mesoamerican roots. On this day death is celebrated as the passage of the soul into another life. Goods and food are gathered for dead ones, who are believed to come and visit the living on the Day of the Dead.
In all these origin stories food holds a central place. Indeed, Halloween historically offers us a day to relate more closely to our dead loved ones, through the nurturing act of eating and sharing food. On this day, the veil is believed to be thinner between the living and the dead, between the physical and the non-physical. Boundaries between these categories are blurred, and food is offered as a medium to feel closer to our loved ones beyond the veil. Whether you actually believe that spirits visit us on that day or not, Halloween can still be a way to celebrate the life of those who have died. Their memories and the bonds we share with our dead loved ones do not die with them. That is something we can continue to cherish and celebrate whether they are physically with us or not.
Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt (1990). Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., Gretna, LA.
Brandes, Stanley. “The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity.” Journal of American Folklore442 (1998): 359-80
Lisa Darmet is a freelance writer, whose passions include, not only eating, but also food and cooking and their connections to health, culture and society. She is a graduate of Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, USA with a specialty in “Cultivating Resiliency and Food Justice Through Community”. She is truly a citizen of the world and continues to explore cultures through world travel.