Halloween, an unofficial holiday, is nonetheless celebrated by millions of people in North America and the British Isles, rivaling only Christmas in popularity. In the heavily-illustrated Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, York University professor of history Nicholas Rogers traces the history of this holiday from its alleged beginnings as a Celtic festival, Samhain, marking the end of summer, to its many and various manifestations today. Along the way, he tells how “trick or treat” began and developed, explains the origins of the pranks and even destructiveness associated with Halloween, and looks at the ways Hollywood has presented the holiday as a time of evil unleashed.
While much of this information may be familiar, Rogers manages to unearth much that is fresh and even unexpected. Trick or treating, for example, only became popular in the 1920s. And as a native Detroiter, I was struck by the surprisingly appropriate relationship between the ancient Celtic custom of burning the Wicker Man and Detroit’s infamous Devil’s Night arsons.
American readers may by put off by the heavy focus on things Canadian, although how our northern neighbors celebrate the holiday is unknown terrain for us. Rogers’ emphasis on gay Halloween celebrations may put off other readers. But he covers so much ground in this relatively short survey that no reader can be ultimately disappointed with his book. From the popularity of the series of Halloween horror movies to how new immigrants adapt themselves to this strange holiday, and from the Puritan opposition to Halloween to the fears that trick or treaters may be given dangerous candy, Rogers offers a wide and fascinating smorgasbord on all things related to this festival of transgression. He even speculates on a possible convergence in the future between Halloween and the not-so-dissimilar Mexican Day of the Dead. For anyone at all interested in the history of our nations’ holidays, Rogers’ book is a must have.
(Oxford University Press, 2003)