MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Do We Wear Costumes At Halloween?

Though it’ll probably look & feel a bit different this year (thanks COVID), Halloween’s almost here. And everyone is trying to figure out exactly how they want to dress up. But why do we put on costumes on “All Hallows’ Eve”?

There’s no single explanation for how the tradition of wearing Halloween costumes originated. Much like Halloween itself, our ritual of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from across the ages & around the world.

A lot of historians suspect it comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain marked the official start of winter, known to Celts as “the dark season’, when it was believed that the world of the gods was “made visible to humankind”.

That idea made the Celts a bit uneasy, since they believed their deities liked to play tricks on human worshippers. So, many festival-goers would disguise themselves as animals or beasts to hide from any malevolent spirits that might bring them misfortune.

If you were to fast forward a few hundred years, the modern-day practice of dressing up & trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming & guising.” Mummers were folks who’d dress up in costumes, a lot of times woven from straw, to perform plays & songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish & Irish immigrants brought that tradition over here to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

It wasn’t until the mid-1900s, however, that Halloween costumes really hit their stride. And we have New York City entrepreneurs Ben & Nat Cooper to thank for that. They started a company (Ben Cooper, Inc.) that produced inexpensive pop culture-themed costumes to help kids become the characters they idolized from TV & comic books. The company would oftentimes purchase merchandising rights before characters ever even became popular. Thanks in no small part to the Coopers’ innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible & even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. According to the National Retail Federation Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of which, about half a billion will go to costuming our pets). I just wonder what the ancient Celts might have thought about our Halloween costumes nowadays.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at andy@wfre.com.