How Halloween Became America's Biggest Party

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Ever thought what Halloween is really all about? No? Well, take that bite-size Twix bar out of your mouth and listen up.

Halloween, like many American festivals, actually has pagan (and religious) origins. But unlike Christmas, which clings to a few recognizable religious roots, Halloween has metamorphosed from a Celtic rite imported by Irish immigrants into a gigantic costume party and institutionalized chocolate-eating frenzy. In the U.S., kids and adults alike plunge into Halloween celebrations with gusto, with very little recognition of the day's significance.

A Little Bit O' History

This is how it all started: Ancient Celts celebrated New Year's Eve around this time, when the crops were harvested and livestock were fattened up for winter. The holiday also served as a window for the recently dead, whose souls traveled overnight between the earthly realm and the afterlife. Bonfires were lit and carefully attended, illuminating the spirits' passage.

A few unlucky sinners, whose mistakes in life prevented them from passing on to the other side, stayed behind in animal form to wander among the living. The Celts extended offerings (often in the form of fruits and vegetables) to appease the ghosts, and dressed as the dead to fool the spirits away.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory I decided to transform ancient holidays into Catholic religious observances. He assigned the mid-winter solstice the new name Christmas and began calling November 1 All Saints' Day or All Hallows Day. The new holiday was designated as a catchall to honor otherwise neglected Catholic saints, but was also meant to emphasize the evil of the Celts' wandering spirits. Just as Pope Gregory had hoped, All Saints' Day eventually overshadowed the Celtic rites, but the old holiday lived on, especially among the Irish and Scots, the main inheritors of the Celtic traditions.

Nixon Masks and Other Traditions

These days, of course, North Americans don't pay much attention to November 1, while many of the Celtic All Hallows Eve (hence Halloween) traditions remain: Costumes, bonfires and giving gifts, or "treats."

And much to the glee of the greeting card industry, here in the U.S. we've embraced the holiday with a vengeance, spending more money on Halloween than on any other celebration but Christmas. Every year, we spend more than $2.4 billion stocking up on orange gourds, Richard Nixon masks, candy bars and more than 20 million Halloween cards. Many surveys suggest that two thirds of adults will take part in some kind of festivity on or around October 31, often spending more than $100 in the process.

So why have we become so invested in a undeclared holiday that revolves around dressing up in bizarre costumes? There are several theories: One, America has no truly universal religion, and Halloween's ostensibly secular message appeals to everyone. Schools can celebrate and hold costume parties without parents arguing for equal representation for another holiday. Another, less cheerful, theory, holds that America is a land in the grips of utter delusion, where only make-believe holds people's attention, leading otherwise sensible adults to wear giant bunny rabbit costumes in front of perfect strangers.

A Tradition Re-Exported

The latter might be a comforting idea for the rest of the world, but it doesn't really hold water: Halloween, once a minor event on the British calendar — the pagan aspect had largely been usurped by Guy Fawkes Day, a day of bonfires and fireworks meant to celebrate the quashing of a Catholic rebellion against James I in the early 1600s — has infiltrated the U.K. at breakneck speed in the last few years. The trend has befuddled countless parents, thrilled Cadbury's and tested the limits of British dental acumen. And even the French, always slightly wary of trends they didn't create themselves, have adopted the costume parties and candies.