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Q: What are the origins of the traditions associated with Halloween?

A: Halloween came to the United States with the large influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. "All Hallow's Eve," Oct. 31, anticipates the Catholic holy days of All Saint's Day (Nov. 1) and All Soul's Day (Nov. 2), days set aside to honor saints and departed relatives respectively. Although understood by Irish Catholics as fitting within the liturgical year, Halloween has deep pre-Christian roots. It unites a fall harvest festival with the Druidic New Year, an occasion when the recently deceased were believed to revisit the places they once inhabited. Fearful farmers would bell their cows and drape thorny bushes near their barn doors to discourage spirits from harming livestock. Every year, we placate with candy the descendants of returning spirits, the witches and devils, who come to our doors each Oct. 31 trick-or-treating.

Concerned that the devilish side of Halloween (the slashing of tires and other destruction of property by raucous teenagers) was getting out of control at the beginning of the 1950s, community leaders in towns and cities across America instituted group parties in schools and town halls. Radio stations gave away prizes after 9 p.m., and before the days of transistor radios, kids had to be home by the radio to learn whether they had won. Today's after-prom parties that promise lavish giveaways like cars and expensive stereo systems, achieve a similar form of social control.

Although many today consider the devilishness of Halloween fairly harmless, others view it as a particularly sinister assault on their religious beliefs. In reaction, some have set up alternative "haunted houses" complete with ghoulish depictions of hell and simulated abortion clinics.

Carol Burke
Associate Professor of English

-- Adrienne Spain


E-mail your questions to asktheexperts@vanderbilt.edu, or via mail to "Ask the Experts" c/o Division of Public Affairs, 511 Kirkland Hall, Nashville, TN 37240


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