by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Halloween like so many other commingled pagan and Christian traditions has its roots as a feast which marked both the end of summer and the walking abroad of departed souls who were here for the last time before the transition to the next world. Even spirits must need be fed so the custom of collecting “treats” (or what once were called “soul cakes”) unfolded for the benefit of both us and the supernatural beings. In case the meandering ghosts were prone to exercise their displeasure with us mortals as a final act of vengeance it was considered prudent to disguise oneself on that particular evening.

The harvest of pumpkins (frequently carved for the effect of spookiness) combined both the feast and rite of passage. Remember too that bringing the cattle down from the summer highlands necessitated the annual slaughter of the livestock so the event was not without its blunt and bloody element which inspired bonfires and other rituals associated with sacrifice.

Each of us has seen the evolution of the annual celebration of Halloween, a diversion which changes as we age. As children the preoccupation with costumes was overwhelming. The connection of “guising” (wearing a disguise while going about in search of treats) long ago lost its foundation as something the poor children did in hopes of obtaining food and coins although it is easy to see the connection with UNICEF which is a United Nations programme providing humanitarian aid to children in developing countries. It is estimated that children have collected more than $118M for UNICEF since its inception though the Halloween programme was discontinued in Canada in 2006 for safety and administrative concerns after consultation with schools.

In conjunction with the annual “trick-or-treat” festivities – and obviously for the primary benefit of the younger children – many parents go to considerable lengths to decorate the outside of their homes with often comic or ghoulish artifacts, in many cases far more extensive than even at Christmas.

In later life at colleges and universities the celebration of Halloween was kept alive more often by house or dormitory parties infused with the entertaining features of costumes (along with dyed hair and make-up). Halloween is generally considered to legitimize any quirky trait or sartorial bent which you might otherwise harbour throughout the rest of the year. Some university students profited by the event to go about “trick or shot-glassing”, a sophistication designed more to extract a glass of beer or a shot of liquour than a bit of chocolate.

For some teenagers Halloween is nothing more than the licence to damage property, including pelting passing automobiles with eggs. A hard line by enforcement authorities and the growing community rejection of such unsociable conduct has thankfully reigned in that behaviour.

As adults the customary response to the evening’s unfolding is to participate in the measured distribution of candy to the young children who invariably provide no end of amusement in their imaginative (and sometimes laughingly awkward) costumes. The healthfulness of the goodies has undergone the expected metamorphosis from sweets to fruit though the regrettable scare of having razors embedded in apples has diluted the otherwise favourable trend.

For those who choose to escape the constant ringing of the doorbell on Halloween there is normally an assured festivity in the larger urban centres where crowds often congregate to watch for the parade of costumed revelers. With luck the evening will be one of the last before the onset of winter when people can mill about out-of-doors with a view to corporate amusement. Local bars and clubs normally enjoy a surge of popularity on Halloween.