We trace many of our Halloween traditions to ancient pre-Christian-era Celtic celebrations, but this year will be much different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out these historical items, parenting tips, and random thoughts and observations about the holiday season from Ball State faculty.

Halloween Traditions Date Back Centuries

Children wearing Halloween costumes and smiling.

Fred Suppe, a history professor, points out that a majority of Halloween traditions originated with the ancient Celts and their priests, the Druids. Other civilizations adopted and modified Celtic rituals, such as bobbing for apples or donning disguises.

“The Celts can be traced back to 800 B.C., to what is now southern Germany and include the ancestors of the Scottish, Irish, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons,” said Suppe, an expert in Celtic folklore. “Particular motifs of modern-day Halloween—such as the date and time it is celebrated, children trick-or-treating, the jack-o’-lantern, and bobbing for apples—are related to Celtic traditions.”

When Christianity was introduced to the Celts, church leaders tried to persuade them to abandon their pagan celebrations and adopt the Christian calendar. Because these traditions were culturally ingrained, the church provided alternative holy days such as All Saints’ Day on November 1.

Ancient Celts’ Oct. 31 Festival was About Surviving Winter

People having a good time carving pumpkins.

Across northern Europe about 2,500 years ago, ancient Celtic tribes kept a close eye on the night skies in late October, watching for star cluster called Pleiades to signal the beginning of winter.

When the Pleiades was directly overhead at midnight, they knew it was time to celebrate a festival that included the origins of our modern Halloween traditions, said Dayna Thompson, director of the Charles W. Brown Planetarium at Ball State.

“The last day of October marked the harvest season and their end of summer, opening the door to a cold, dark winter,” she said. “On Halloween, or October 31, Celts would recognize this time with a festival called Samhain—meaning ‘summer’s end.’”

In the 360-degree video experience, “Halloween: Celestial Origins,” Thompson and others explore the astronomical significance of the holiday. 

Parents Can Create New Halloween Traditions During Pandemic 

Children trick or treating while eating suckers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), families should consider creating new Halloween traditions this year that do not involve trick-or-treating, parties, and get-togethers.

The CDC recently posted guidance for the holidays, including Halloween. The federal agency warns people to avoid higher risk activities, including door-to-door trick-or-treating; attending crowded, indoor costume parties; visiting indoor haunted houses; or going on hayrides or tractors rides with strangers. 

“The most important part of any holiday is spending quality time together and making memories,” said Jill Walls, an associate professor of Early Childhood, Youth, and Family Studies. “COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty for families, but I think it’s possible to still have fun this Halloween season while staying safe. Parents should take time to prepare their children for some new traditions and provide reassurance about the other upcoming holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.” 

Pandemic, Election May be Scaring Away Consumers this Halloween

Woman wearing skeleton mask holding an umbrella in blue smoke.

From a pandemic that’s changing social habits to a highly controversial presidential race, this Halloween retail season “may be the most unpredictable one in recent memory,” said Steve Horwitz, an economics professor.

“There are a variety of factors creating a high degree of uncertainty about what consumers are likely to do,” Horwitz said. “To the extent that the economy remains slow and that unemployment remains fairly high, that would suggest a sluggish holiday retail season.”

He pointed out that the recently-released annual survey by the National Retail Federation found about 148 million U.S. adults plan to participate in Halloween-related activities this year—down from the 172 million in the 2019 survey. And those planning to celebrate by trick-or-treating this year dropped to 23% from 29% in 2019.

Remember: Young Children See the World Much Differently than Elder Siblings, Adults

Preschool children and those in early elementary school often have a difficult time with Halloween because youngsters often struggle with separating fantasy from reality, and as a result they may get confused and think the scary elements of Halloween are real, warns Theresa Kruczek, a counseling psychology professor.

“Just because you love a scary movie doesn’t mean your 4-year-old will,” Kruczek says. “Parents are in the best position to know what frightens their child and to help them cope with Halloween”

And, keep a can of anti-monster spray handy just in case.

After a frightening experience, children may have nightmares. They really can’t tell us too much about the dream, but we can take some precautions to ward off those dreams by using a can of air freshener, and calling it anti-monster spray, to keep monsters at bay. Monsters don’t like nice-smelling stuff.”

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