A Free-form Festival without Rites? The Case of North America's Halloween

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Halloween is essentially a syncretic festival which grew out of the Celtic observance of samhain (or summer’s end) and the Christian high holidays of All Saints and All Souls. It developed into a continental holiday in North America (in the USA and Canada) with the waves of immigration from Ireland and Scotland in the nineteenth century. Unlike two other major festivals in America, Christmas and Thanksgiving, it is not officially endorsed by the state or by religious institutions. It is essentially a free-form holiday, fixed only by its calendrical regularity (31 October), although some of its popular rites – the threshold encounter, the masking, the charivari-like retributions on unpopular neighbours – can be traced back to its early modern form as Hallowmas or Hallowtide. What is interesting about Halloween is the way it has been appropriated by different segments of the population over time, the spaces it creates for parody, play and choreographed transgression. Alongside the liminoid features of the holiday (to use Victor Turner), are rampant commercialism and the hyperreal features of the “scary thrill” which feed off the conventions of Hollywood and television in reproducing a genre of popular Gothic. Halloween may seem trivial, but it is actually an interesting window into American popular culture: to its sentimentality (as epitomized on Halloween by the “trick or treat”), its hyperreality (to use Baudrillard), and its deep ambivalences about death, violence and transgression. Continually off-kilter, a zoned space for zaniness, it retains some stability through its place in the children’s calendar (after the return to school, before Thanksgiving) and with older conventions associated with the advance of winter.


Keywords: Festival, Popular Culture, Liminality, Hyperreality, North America
Stream: History, Historiography
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr Nicholas Rogers

Professor of History, Faculty of Arts
York University

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I am principally an historian of eighteenth-century Britain and the Atlantic World with a wide interest in popular culture, festival and resistance. Among the books I have written are Crowds, Culture and Politics in Georgian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Halloween. From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). My next book, to be published in September 2008, is The Press Gang. Naval impressment and its opponents in Georgian Britain (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2008). In the graduate programme, I regularly teach a course on the theory and methodologies of social history.

Ref: H08P0538