Is free stuff ever free?
Snickers announced it would give away one million fun-size bars in time for Halloween via OneMillionSnickers.com. Part of the stunt includes a Change.org petition from 2018 requesting that the government move the date of Halloween. It’s now about adding a second Halloween—a full trick-or-treat day for “self-expression.” All of this seemed weird to me because of Samhain (I’ll explain) but then again, companies often separate marketing narratives from the nuances of history. Story and history are not the same thing. So let me share a snippet from my history and tell you all about Snickers, Samhain, and your holiday stories.
It was the 90s, Bjork and Trainspotting were hella dope, and it was time for me to register for winter classes. My roommate insisted I sign up for a class taught by “the world’s greatest professor ever” with the two caveats of (1) who cares that Celtic history isn’t your thing and (2) don’t be distracted by her mullet. So I registered over the phone at 6 am like a proper Gen Xer, showed up, and she really was that good.
She told us all sorts of stories about the hero-giant Cuhulian, battles of naked warriors covered in blue pigment, barreling across battlefields shrieking their lineage, and of course, Samhain. I never saw Halloween the same way again. Or mullets. Turns out they, too, can be hella dope.
The first Halloween was everything
Samhain was one of four major Celtic seasonal festivals around 2,000 years ago. It took place between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, from sundown October 31 through November 1 (by today’s Gregorian calendar). Samhain—likely pronounced SAH-wen—meant “summer’s end” in Gaelic.
Samhain was the night the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was thin enough to traverse. Revelers held feasts, stoked bon(e)fires, and donned freaky costumes. There were animal sacrifices to placate monsters from beyond, fairies, and some light soul snatching. Oh, and turnips carved into jack-o-lanterns. Very Weekend at Bernie‘s but with more beards.
The Church aimed to gain a foothold among pagans, so it needed to address Samhain. In the 5th century, Pope Boniface rescheduled Samhain to May 13 and reframed it as a celebration of martyrs and saints. But Samhain stuck around because it is so rad. And that was the loop. Throughout history, the Church campaigned to stop/absorb/reframe Samhain and the closest they got was tacking on All Saints/All Souls day instead.
Halloween today is a loud echo
I am pretty sure the American Halloween you know still has a lot in common with Samhain. Hats off to it for hanging tough after myriad attempts to break its back. So it makes perfect sense (eyeroll) that a candy company would want to deal it a death blow with a petition to the government. Nevermind that Halloween isn’t a government holiday. Sigh. “Thanks for the petition, guys, but you’ll need to go downstairs to THE UNDERWORLD and fill this out in triplicate.”
Snickers’ angle was that turning it into a daytime holiday makes kids safer. It’s the age-old marketing move to use a story to control people’s emotions. OMG, kids in danger? Cancel e’rything. Let’s temporarily overlook the kid cavity factory that is trick-or-treating AND that once you’re of age, you piously observe Halloween on Saturdays anyway.
Marketing and history collide a lot
The whole modern-narrative-versus-historical-origins thing has been a big issue for ages. It goes together like cookies and razorblades. It used to be the tool of organized religion and now it belongs to marketing. They both want your allegiance and part of your wallet. One makes your life better tomorrow and one makes it better right now. Same maneuvers though.
Yet which Halloween narrative is more intriguing? The one about candy (that you can buy year-round but whatevs) and dressing as a sexy ghostbuster OR the one about communing with another dimension? Snickers is hoping you’re into the first one and ignorant of the second. But the truth is, the narratives can coexist.
Fact can be better than fiction
All these characters, all those narratives, all this cultural appropriation. Don’t get me wrong. I love Snickers and stash a bar at work for emergencies a.k.a. whatever you call afternoons at 3 pm. We Halloween it up at our house for a solid week. So what’s the connection between Snickers, Samhain, and your holiday stories? My ask is that as you celebrate this season, please explore each holiday’s origins. It will lend you some immunity to the marketing mania and you might enjoy the season even more as you incorporate the real backstories. It can be quite a conversation starter, isn’t that right, Saint Valentine?