Originating with the Samhain Celtic festival, Halloween—previously called All Hallows’ Eve—falls on the evening before All Saints’ Day, which Pope Gregory III designated as a day commemorating martyrs and saints. The holiday is meant to highlight Samhain traditions, but over the years has evolved into a community event.
Throughout the world, Halloween celebrations feature family-centered activities like trick-or-treating, which provide the means for transitioning into the winter season with remnants of the holiday’s religious roots: costumes, gatherings and communally shared sweets.
Characterizing the modern American Halloween, the tradition of trick-or-treating got its start in England, with early All Souls’ Day parades. These parades included impoverished citizens petitioning their rich neighbors for food, which was then provided to them in the form of pastries called “soul cakes.” In exchange for a soul cake, the beggars promised to pray for the giver’s deceased relatives.
To shift from the ancient tradition of providing food and wine for wandering spirits, the church encouraged a similar distribution of food. Children eventually adopted the concept of “begging for food,” and they began circling their neighborhoods and accepting offers of money and treats.
In addition to trick-or-treating, the second hallmark of the American Halloween—which is dressing in costume—has its roots in both European and Celtic tradition. Wearing costumes on Halloween stems from a period when winter carried connotations of uncertainty and fear, fostered by dwindling food supplies and decreasing sunlight.
With the belief that ghosts reentered and roamed the mortal world on Halloween, people feared encountering these spirits when they left their homes. Wearing a mask, however, allowed Halloween celebrants to avoid recognition, and the ghosts would perceive them as fellow spirits and leave them alone.
During the Victorian Era, the rise of Darwin’s research in evolution and the rapid change catalyzed by the Industrial Revolution encouraged the desire for simpler folklore and a reestablished connection to nature. This nostalgia inspired the popularization of Halloween costumes, notably worn to 20th century masquerade parties and social clubs.
Today, Halloween costumes derive inspiration not only from nature, but also from pop culture and ancient belief in ghosts, witches and monsters.
Memorializing the year’s most notable events and spectacles, popular costumes for Halloween 2016 will surely appear stolen right from the headlines of newspapers and magazines. This year, costumes are guaranteed to pay homage to the presidential election, the Summer Olympics, the app-sensation Pokémon Go, Beyoncé’s groundbreaking visual album and the year’s biggest blockbusters that will lend themselves to group costumes, including depictions of Suicide Squad, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the female-led remake of Ghostbusters.
Although avid celebrants begin planning their Halloween costumes months in advance, others might enjoy the following cheap, do-it-yourself, last minute ideas:
- Error 404 Page: “Error 404: Costume Not Found” written on a plain white shirt
- Kid on Christmas: Donning pajamas, pigtails and a stuffed animal.
- Classic Ghost: Made by cutting holes in a bed sheet.
- Static Cling: Socks and dryer sheets pinned to any outfit—complete with messy hair.