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Domestic News | October 30, 2012

Melting pot holiday


The American version of Halloween comes from a compilation of cultural celebrations

David Ross, left, and Jesse Yarnell, right, use blowers to clear leaves in front of the Pumpkin Mania display on the steps of Old Morrison on the Transylvania University campus in Lexington, Ky., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Over 250 carved pumpkins are displayed and will remain through the Halloween holiday. (AP Photo/The Lexington Herald-Leader, Charles Bertram)

Kelly Loman fully intended to hand out candy to costumed children on Wednesday night. But after buying mounds of chocolate, Loman got an unwelcome change of plans. A graduate student at Duke University, Loman has had to set aside her trick or treating to study for newly announced quizzes and exams--the ultimate disappointment for a college student looking for a break. She consoled herself with the knowledge that the candy she planned to hand out will make an excellent study break snack.

While Loman diligently studies, other students will take the night off to celebrate one of the spookiest and commercialized holidays on the American calendar: Halloween.

What used to be a single evening of cavorting around in costume has evolved into an entire Halloween season, complete with parties, decorations and elaborate disguises. According to the National Retail Federation's 2012 Halloween consumer spending survey, 170 million people will celebrate Halloween this year, an increase of about 3 percent from last year. Retail spending for Halloween will reach $8 billion, making it the second highest grossing commercial holiday behind Christmas.

And the festivities aren't just for families with young children or college students looking for a party. Entire towns participate in the season of fantasy and folklore. Residents of Madison, Wis., for example, enjoy Freakfest each year, a citywide Halloween party that attracted 30,000 people in 2011.

Loman considers Halloween a rite of passage for the nation's youth: "I can still remember the sense of independence I felt my first Halloween without my parents walking with me."

Although they buy candy, carve pumpkins and put inflatable ghosts in their front yards, most Americans probably don't know how the nation became so enamoured with Halloween.

The holiday originated in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which celebrated the end of the harvest season. Many believed that the spirits of the deceased came back to life, so people often wore masks and costumes to impersonate the dead and force them away.

When Christians entered the Celtic territories in about 800 A.D., they brought with them All Saints Day, a holiday started by Pope Boniface IV to honor the dead and martyrs. The day became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

Before the Revolutionary War, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote two poems that detailed ancient Celtic Halloween traditions. When the "Celtic wave" came to America, bits and pieces of those traditions emerged, such as fortune telling and ghost stories, said Pamela Apkarian-Russell, owner of Castle Halloween Museum in Benwood, W.Va..

Many cultures contributed their customs to what is now the American version of Halloween. Scandinavians brought the idea of witches, while Mexico added traditions from the Day of the Dead, creating in a compilation of ancient cultural customs.

Apkarian-Russell's museum displays 250 years worth of Halloween memorabilia and includes more than 35,000 items. Also known as the "Halloween Queen," Apkarian-Russell has written 11 books about the holiday and describes the Halloween season as "a fantasy time."

"It becomes this wonderful mixture, this wonderful stew of a holiday," she said.

Patrick Pottorff, a junior at Western Michigan University, doesn't quite share the Halloween Queen's enthusiasm. As a child, Pottorff enjoyed the candy but felt skeptical of the intimidating ghoulish costumes, he said.

Now a practicing Catholic, he finds more importance within the celebration of All Saints Day. Recognized as a "Holy Day of Obligation," All Saints Day is the only day of the year that honors the deceased.

"I don't think I've ever missed Mass on All Saints Day, and I certainly never intend to," Pottorff said.

Christians continue to debate the appropriate response to Halloween. Many churches provide alternatives like harvest festivals or celebrate the day as the anniversary of Protestantism's founding--Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. While some Christian believe Halloween celebrates spiritual darkness and evil, others shrug it off as lighthearted consumerism.

Whether people approach Halloween with Pottorff's ambivalence or in anticipation of candy bowls and creative costumes, the "Halloween Queen" encourages keeping an open mind. Many interesting and beautiful traditions, such as the rich history and autumn colors, surround the Halloween season, she said.

Though Loman cannot participate in the Halloween celebrations this year, she describes the holiday as an ideal time for adults to break out of their routines: "I think Halloween gives us an excuse to go out and be someone we're not during the nine to five."