Disney does Halloween so well. No other company has generated as strong a Halloween footprint as the Disney company. But what is it about Halloween that Disney loves so much? With the popularity of Halloween increasing every year, and the industry now raking in over $6 billion annually, we decided it was time to explore how this holiday came to be one of the busiest of the year, for Disney, and for America.
T.V. shows and movies love to grow the hype around Halloween, and have contributed to the success of America’s second largest commercial holiday. Watching horror movies, trick-or-treating, decorating your house and visiting haunted attractions are all popular ways to celebrate the holiday, but how did these traditions start? We take a look through history to learn how it all began…
How Did Halloween Start?
Halloween originates from the ancient Celtic ‘Festival of Samhain’. The festival, which was established 2,000 years ago, took place in Ireland, and northern France. The celebration was held on the eve before November 1st to welcome in the new year, and the new season. November 1st marked the end of summer and the harvests, and was the start of the colder, winter season which was often associated with death. For this reason, the Celts saw the 31st October as a night that sat on the boundary between the world of the living, and that of the dead – a grey area between the two existences. For the ancient Celts, this grey area came to be thought of as a supernatural time in which the dead could return.
The belief that ghosts or spirits could return to the living world on the night of October 31st, came to be a source of anxiety for the Celts, since they worried about their people, and for their crops. Celts also came to believe that the presence of such spirits could enable the Druids (Celtic Priests) to make more accurate predictions regarding the future. In order to draw on this power, the Druids built large, sacred bonfires and invited the people to gather, burning their crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. The Celts often dressed in costumes for the bonfire, wearing animal heads and skins. When the celebrations were over, the Celts would light a stick from the bonfire, and return home to light their fires at home from the bonfire flame – a ritual which they believed would protect their household over the dark, cold months.
What Happened Next?
By 43 A.D., most of the Celtic territory which celebrated the Samhain was conquered by the Roman Empire, and new festivals of Roman origin were merged with the Celtic celebrations. The first was Feralia, which commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day which paid respect to the Roman goddess of fruit and trees – Pomona. Pomona was traditionally symbolised as an apple, and thus evolved the tradition of bobbing for apples that is now practiced.
Several hundred years later, the Roman/Celtic celebrations were set to change again. 609 A.D. saw the dedication of the Pantheon in Rome by Pope Boniface IV, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was quickly established within the Catholic church, and was expanded to include All Saints Day on November 1st. By the 9th century, Christianity had spread, and had now assimilated with the ancient Celtic rites which were once celebrated at this time of year. The day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, using large bonfires, costumes and parades. All Saints Day came to be known as All-Hallows, with the evening before (31st October) coming to be known as All-Hallows Eve, and eventually was colloquialised to ‘Halloween’.
Halloween in America
With the arrival of the British, came Halloween, but it was very limited in New England because of the protestant belief systems there. In Maryland, and the more southern colonies, Halloween was more common. As different customs and beliefs began to merge within American culture, Halloween became celebrated differently. These celebrations were initially harvest parties where the harvest was celebrated. This had many of the same characteristics of the Samhain - neighbours would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, and dance and sing. As time went on, this celebration came to be more about ghost stories, and with the mass immigration of Irish people feeling the potato famine, Halloween soon became a popular national celebration.
Out of this popularity was born the ‘trick-or-treat’ tradition. Americans began borrowing from Irish and English traditions – wearing costumes and going from house to house asking for food or money. This soon led to what we now know as ‘trick-or-treat’. The development of Halloween items also evolved during this time. Where the Celts had traditionally carried Jack-o’-lanterns to represent the souls who had been denied entry into both heaven or hell, Americans began carving pumpkins to represent the harvest.
By the turn of the century, Halloween had become popular among both children, and adults, and had established itself as an annual celebration in which people either go out, trick-or-treating, or stay in, playing games, eating themed food and wearing festive, or spooky costumes. An American tradition was born.
Today, Halloween is more prominent than ever. For those that celebrate, Halloween is an annual holiday, held on October 31st. Halloween has seen a great evolution, and is now a day full of activities all over the world – including bobbing for apples, carving pumpkins and trick-or treating in the evening. It is now the second largest commercial holiday in America, (after Christmas), and has become a $6 billion-dollar holiday for Americans. The celebration of Halloween has become a community holiday, without any religious affiliation. Public events such as street parades and parties are held within different communities, and trick-or-treating is more prominent than ever. The New York Halloween parade, which was established in 1974, is now one of America’s largest parades, attracting more than 2 million spectators, and a worldwide television audience of over 100 million. However, the largest Halloween parade in the world takes place in Northern Ireland.
Modern imagery for Halloween is a blend of many sources – including Christian eschatology, national customs, gothic literature and horror films, as well as fall harvest themes such as corn husks, pumpkins and scarecrows. Homes are traditionally decorated with these images, as well as themes of death, evil, and the colors black and orange. This imagery follows on into Halloween costumes which traditionally follow the same color scheme, and are modelled after witches, ghosts, monsters, or characters from Gothic or Horror texts. Over time, costumes have also come to include popular characters from fiction, celebrities and generic archetypes such as princes, ninjas, animals etc.
Haunted attractions have also risen to prominence, and are now one of the features of a Halloween experience in many countries. Designed to scare and thrill, Haunted attractions include haunted houses, hayrides and corn mazes, all intended to provide participants with an adrenaline rush, as they move through the attraction experiencing its frights. The haunted attraction became a cultural icon after the opening of the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland in 1969, which led many other theme parks to offer a haunted house experience.
Food is also an important part of Halloween. Because Halloween follows on from the yearly apple harvest, candy apples quickly rose to prominence as a featured food at Halloween celebrations, and as a trick-or-treat food. Because of the harvest time in which Halloween falls, many harvest-related foods have come to be associated with Halloween including caramel corn, candy pumpkins and roasted sweet corn. Popular processed foods made into novelty shapes such as skulls, worms and bats have also become popular foods for Halloween consumption.
Because Halloween has become so culturally ubiquitous, it has even made it into hundreds of movies and television shows. From shows on the Cartoon Network to Garfield, to Archie, to Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives – you name it, and Halloween has featured on it. Halloween specials are rife, and it has become a tradition among some Halloween celebrators to sit down and watch these specials on Halloween night. The Walt Disney Company has taken the lead with Halloween, making it a prominent feature of many of its shows and movies, particularly with its 1993 film Hocus Pocus, which has become a cult classic with a large fan base. In addition to the Haunted Mansion rides, Disney parks also take on Halloween in a very strong way, decorating the park in Halloween decorations and selling Halloween-inspired food and costumes during the month of October.
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