Little ghouls clinging to older-brother cowboys; toothy pumpkin-heads flickering welcome on front stoops; black cats and autumn breeze whispering chills up kiddies’ spines. It’s Halloween in the South: refill the candy bowls, and take a bet on what the yard will look like in the morning.
Halloween, of course, is celebrated everywhere in America, but the South does, apparently, have somewhat of a peculiar claim to the holiday. In the beggarly beginnings of the country, Puritan New England didn’t allow the holiday—come to think of it, they got along with hardly any holidays at all—but in the jolly and generous mostly-Anglican South, it was an entirely different story. Maryland’s Catholics and the later tater-famine Irish also bolstered the day’s observance in Southern lands, providing a firm foundation for the Halloween mania seen throughout the country today.
And mania it is. Halloween is second only to commercial-king Christmas in holiday profit-making importance, plunking seven billion dollars or more into retailers’ little black-and-orange trick-or-treat buckets. Costumes and candy, parties and pumpkins—it all adds up to a $20-a-head national spending-spree ticket for a holiday that was recognized officially in the U.S. only seventy-five years ago.
Official or not, Halloween has always been celebrated in some way in the American South, usually combined with harvest festivals, elaborate dances or balls, playing games, wearing costumes, and even a bit of (mostly harmless) mischief-making. Why all of this on October 31? In the Anglican and Catholic traditions, this is the eve of All Saints’ Day, when the church remembers and celebrates “all the saints.” Throughout Europe, including England and Ireland, from which most of the early Southern holiday traditions came, the day or night just before a main holiday had its own attractions (think Christmas Eve and Mardi Gras). Such was certainly the case with “All Hallows’ Eve” or, as it came to be known in time, “Hallowe’en.”
By the time Halloween traditions came to be widely popular throughout the South and then throughout the entire nation, much of the religious association had been lost for most of those joining in the fun. Ironically, today it is primarily certain Southern religious groups who have taken a stand against the holiday, sometimes denouncing it as “the Devil’s birthday” or as having “pagan” origins—despite the scant historicity of such claims.
But if the sales report is any indication, the holiday is not in any danger of doing a disappearing act any time soon. Southerners’ medieval ancestors in Britain and Ireland dressed in costumes as children and went door-to-door singing prayers or reciting poetry in exchange for treats. Their own children may have dropped the prayers and poems, but on the last day of October the sing-song voices of cleverly-disguised beggars are heard on many a Southern front porch, and the candy in the bag is a good indication they are just as happily expected as ever.