Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Irish Potato Famine brought Halloween to the States, and candy is spreading it all over the world

Photo: A family trick-or-treating near Walgreens on State Street, Chicago, Illinois, circa 1987. (Thomas Frederick Arndt/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Geography of Halloween

What it’s about: Whether it’s costumes, candy, or the timeless appeal of going door-to-door threatening your neighbors, everyone loves Halloween. What started as Samhain, (pronounced “sow-in”)—an ancient Irish festival celebrating the end of harvest, the beginning of winter, and the night when the spirit world briefly intersected with our own—became thoroughly Americanized, and like every American holiday it is about buying things and eating things. It’s that American spin on the holiday that’s caught on worldwide, and like kids poring over a map of the neighborhood to maximize their candy haul, Wikipedia’s taken an interest in the geography of the holiday.


Biggest controversy: Halloween was virtually unknown in the U.S. until Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s brought a wave of Samhain-observing immigrants. Prior to that, American’s Puritan origins meant most holidays and celebrations were frowned upon. The holiday grew over the subsequent decades, but Americans latched onto the tricks more than the treats. By the beginning of the 20th century, the holiday featured “destruction of property and cruelty to animals and people.” Around 1912, the Boy Scouts and other groups made an effort to promote a safe, destruction-free Halloween, and were largely successful.

Strangest fact: Stephen Colbert was right to warn us about bears, but he should have warned Canada too. Canada’s traditional Halloween was more Scottish-influenced than Irish, and was more focused on “guising” than haunting and pranks. Guising involved children performing rhymes and songs in exchange for candies and nuts, which evolved into “trick or treat.” (British Columbia also throws fireworks into the mix, because why not?) But in the town of Arviat in Nunavut, going door-to-door for candy isn’t such a simple proposition. In 2014, the town canceled trick or treating, having an indoor festival instead, as there was a genuine threat to trick or treaters by roaming polar bears.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Halloween has been embraced as an American pop culture export all over the world. Japanese children trick or treat, and adults go to parties in costume. But if you thought you were worried about the spooky neighbor at the end of the street, you’ve got nothing on Japanese kids—the Yakuza has been giving out Halloween candy for the last 20 years.

There’s been pushback in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Germany, that Halloween is too American, but the holiday’s popularity has grown in all three countries nonetheless. Switzerland embraced Halloween in the late ’90s, but it’s waning in popularity, as the Swiss still prefer traditional holiday Fasnacht, in which people wear masks to scare off winter in the weeks before Lent.


Switzerland isn’t the only country with tension between trick-or-treat and tradition. In the Philippines, Halloween (and the two days after) remembers departed family and friends, and families often hold reunions. Pangangaluluwȃ is the Philippine Halloween tradition of children singing for money, which is used to pay for Masses in honor of dead loved ones. But lust for candy is starting to push this tradition aside.

Photo: The horror... the horror. (H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: If you spend October 31st in China, don’t expect any candy. Chinese Christians celebrate All Saints’ Day a day early, as a strictly religious observance, and Halloween is mostly limited to North American expats, although it seems costume parties are beginning to catch on in big cities. Hong Kong, still the most Western-influenced Chinese city, has had a costumed parade on Halloween for 20 years. While trick-or-treating happens within the confines of gated communities or certain apartment buildings, it hasn’t hit the city at large.

Also noteworthy: In Soviet Russia, treat tricks you! Okay, that didn’t really make sense, but Halloween wasn’t celebrated until after the fall of Communism, and, because most Russian Christians are Orthodox, it’s celebrated in the springtime, when All Saints’ Eve falls on the Orthodox calendar. In recent years, Russian politicians have been trying to eliminate the holiday, so look for Trump to start speaking out against Halloween by mid-next year.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The evolving nature of Halloween has been good for business for Hershey’s, but it’s been bad for Hallmark. A century ago, in the pre-telephone age when people primarily corresponded through letters and cards, the Halloween card was a tradition on par with Christmas cards. (Which is how people showed off photos of their kids pre-Instgram. Ask your grandparents.) There was a boom in Halloween-themed postcards between 1900 and 1915, and those cards that still survive have become collectors’ items.

Further down the Wormhole: Along with bobbing for apple, haunted houses, and (according to Wikipedia) “abstinence from meat,” a favorite Halloween tradition is the bonfire. Bonfires were also used to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of Ancient Rome; young Romans would leap over burning bales of hay, until the practice was prohibited by Pope Sergius III (although it still persists in present-day Italy). Sergius was Pope for just over 7 years, longer than the previous 11 popes, one of whom (Boniface VI) served only 15 days. Another of those, Pope Stephen VI, attempted to discredit Pope Formosus, who was two popes prior, by digging up his corpse and putting it on trial. We’ll investigate this ripped from the headlines—and the grave—case next week.


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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.