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 Calendar of Events » HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN



Pagan Progenitor

Halloween’s origins date back more than 2,000 years. On what we consider November 1, Europe’s Celtic peoples celebrated their New Year’s Day, called Samhain (SAH-win).

On Samhain eve—what we know as Halloween—spirits were thought to walk the Earth as they traveled to the afterlife. Fairies, demons, and other creatures were also said to be abroad.

Celtic Costumes

In addition to sacrificing animals to the gods and gathering around bonfires, Celts often wore costumes—probably animal skins—to confuse spirits, perhaps to avoid being possessed, according to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

By wearing masks or blackening their faces, Celts are also thought to have impersonated dead ancestors.

Young men may have dressed as women and vice versa, marking a temporary breakdown of normal social divisions.

In an early form of trick-or-treating, Celts costumed as spirits are believed to have gone from house to house engaging in silly acts in exchange for food and drink—a practice inspired perhaps by an earlier custom of leaving food and drink outdoors as offerings to supernatural beings.

Christian Influence on Halloween

Samhain was later transformed as Christian leaders co-opted pagan holidays. In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day.

The night before Samhain continued to be observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades, though under a new name: All Hallows’ Eve—later "Halloween."

Halloween Arrives in America

European immigrants brought Halloween to the United States, and the celebration really gathered steam in the 1800s, when Irish-American immigration exploded.

Anoka, Minnesota, may be home to the United States’ oldest official Halloween celebration. Beginning in 1920, the city began staging a parade and bonfire.

Anoka historians say townsfolk wanted to curb Halloween pranks that loosed cows on Main Street and upended outhouses.


Business of Halloween 2011

A record-breaking 161 million people plan on celebrating Halloween in 2011, the highest in the National Retail Federation (NRF)’s nine years of surveying Americans about their Halloween habits.

Seven in 10 Americans, or 68.6 percent, plan to celebrate Halloween, up from 63.8 percent last year, according to NRF.

The average person will spend $72.31 on decorations, costumes, and candy, which is up from $66.28 last year. Total expenditures for the holiday should reach $6.86 billion, an increase from $5.8 billion in 2010.

"Eager to shake off the summer heat and forget about the economy for a few days, Americans are looking forward to having some fun this Halloween," NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

Costumes consume the biggest part of the United States’ Halloween dollars ($26.52 per person), followed closely by candy and decorations.

What an Average American Will Spend on Halloween in 2010

• Halloween Costumes: $26.52
• Halloween Candy: $21.05
• Decorations: $19.79
• Greeting Cards: $4.96

When it comes to costumes, the NRF survey found that about 43 percent of Americans will be dressing up—a bump of 3 percent from 2010.

As far as the most popular getups for Halloween 2011, "the trendiest costume is—literally—coming back from the dead," according to the NRF website.

More than 2.6 million men, women, and children plan to dress as zombies this Halloween, according to NRF’s 2011 Top Costumes survey.

"Due to the popularity of the characters in recent books, television shows, and video games, zombie costumes jumped from number 22 last year to number nine on children’s top costume list and from number seven to four on the adult list," according to the NRF.

Ten Most Popular Adults’ Halloween 2011 Costumes

1. Witch
2. Pirate
3. Vampire
4. Zombie
5. Batman character
6. Cat
7. Vixen
8. Ghost
9. Nurse
10. Scary costume/mask

Ten Most Popular Children’s Halloween 2010 Costumes

1. Princess
2. Witch
3. Spider-Man
4. Pirate
5. Pumpkin
6. Fairy
7. Action/superhero
8. Batman/Vampire (Tie)
9. Disney Princess/Zombies
10. Star Wars Character

Halloween costumes aren’t just for people—many U.S. pets get into the act as well. This year the lion’s share of costumed U.S. pets will appear as either pumpkins (10.7 percent) or devils (8.1 percent).

Hallmark Halloween

Americans give about 20 million Halloween greeting cards a year, according to Hallmark Cards’ website.

"The first Halloween cards that we can detect in the U.S. were produced in 1908," Deidre Parks, a spokesperson for Hallmark, told National Geographic News in 2008.

Halloween Sugar Rush

There are some 36 million potential trick-or-treaters (children aged 5 to 13) in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2009 the average American consumed 24.3 pounds (11 kilograms) of candy, much of it during the Halloween season, according to census data.

Great Pumpkins

Far from the pumpkin’s native Central America, chilly Illinois produces most of the United States’ pumpkins.

Illinois produced some 429 million pounds (195 million kilograms) of pumpkins in 2009, while California and Ohio each produced at least a hundred million pounds (45 million kilograms) according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together the nation’s major pumpkin-producing states grew 931 million pounds (422 million kilograms) of pumpkins, worth about $103 million.

Fall 2010 saw a new "world’s heaviest pumpkin" crowned, which was harvested earlier this year and confirmed by Guinness World Records. New Richmond, Wisconsin farmer Chris Stevens grew a 1,811-pound (822-kilogram) behemoth, which is on display until Halloween at the Bronx Botanical Gardens in New York City. The fruit has a circumference of more than 15 feet (4.6 meters).

About 90 percent of a pumpkin’s weight is from water. While growing, a champion pumpkin can add 40 pounds a day and reach roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.


Do You Believe in Magic?

More than a third of Americans say they believe in ghosts, according to an AP-Ipsos poll conducted before Halloween 2007. Twenty-three percent claimed to have seen a ghost or sensed one’s presence.

About one in five people believe that spells or witchcraft are real, according to the poll.

Halloween Urban Legends

Some Halloween spook stories just won’t die—even if there’s little substance behind the scare.

For example satanic cults, far more common in fiction than in fact, have been said to sacrifice black cats on Halloween.

But experts say there is little evidence for such fears, and that the few isolated incidents involving abused black cats were the work of disturbed—often adolescent—loners.

Candy tainted by poisons, needles, or razor blades is another Halloween hobgoblin.

But sociologist Joel Best said in 2010 that dangerous-candy rumors might be manifestations of fears and anxieties about the future. In a world where so many threats—terrorism, crashing stock markets—seem uncontrollable, it may be comforting for parents to focus on preventable calamities, such as a child biting into a spiked apple, said Best, of the University of Delaware.

Best conducted a study of alleged tainted Halloween candy incidents.

"I have been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating," he wrote.

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated October 28, 2011

Photo:  A popular 2011 Halloween costume is a zombie (pictured, a woman’s getup for Zombiewalk Chile 2011).    by Luis Hidalgo, AP


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