Halloween: In Childhood and History

by Alice Spencer

 

Halloween.

When we were children, it was the one night of the year where you could eat as many sweets as you wanted and knock on random old people’s doors without being threatened with the police. Now that we’re at uni, it became one of several nights of the year where you can get black-out drunk and throw massive house parties. Don’t bank on the no-police part anymore though.

So how did we go from cute point A in our ASDA dress-up costumes, because you’d persuaded mum a bin bag with holes in it wasn’t going to cut it, to cringeworthy point B? Or more importantly, where the hell did Halloween even come from anyway?

Commonly thought of as one of the better inheritances from American culture, Halloween actually goes back a lot further. 2000 years further back, to be precise. ‘Halloween’, an abbreviation of ‘Hallows Eve’ adopted over the last century, actually has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Celebrated on the last day of the Celtic year, the festival marked the beginning of winter, the season associated with death. To our superstitious ancestors the night of the 31st October was believed to be when the ghosts of the dead could return to earth to ruin crops. So logically, our wise ancestors wore animal heads and skins to protect themselves. Suddenly dressing up doesn’t seem so cute anymore.

Until the middle of the 19th-century Halloween was actually fairly limited in New England because of strict religious beliefs. It was only with the wave of new immigrants from Ireland that the celebration of Samhain was popularized to something like the Halloween we know today. The turnips carved by the Celts to ward off fairies were exchanged for the pumpkin, and less emphasis was placed on its superstitious origins as Halloween became more about the community’s children. Gone were the animal skins donned by the Celts, instead children went ‘trick or treating’ around the local community for little gifts and sweets. In fact, the US loves Halloween so much, a quarter of the candy sold annually in America is purchased for Halloween.

So from its roots in superstition, Halloween now appears in many different incarnations around the world. Perhaps the most well-known, not least because of a little-known film called James Bond, most of Latin America celebrate Día de los Muertos in November. The ‘Day of the Dead’ sees face painting and the building of private altars to honor the departed. From the celebration of the dead in Latin America, Austria’s version of Halloween is probably closer to the ghoul-fearing Celts. Between 30th October and 8th November, Seleenwoche or ‘All Souls Week’ sees Austrians leaving out bread, candles and water for the dead before going to sleep. In Cambodia, meanwhile, participants in the 15-day Pchum Ben festival don’t go to bed at all. Instead, monks chant continuously to mark the opening of the gates of Hell when it is believed the spirits of the dead roam the earth. And somehow this leads on buffalo-racing.

In humble Norwich, we like to keep things a bit more low-key. While many of us might opt for the LCR’s ‘Halloween Fright Night’, if last year’s horrendously long queue is anything to go by, Mercy’s ‘Fright Fest’ also promises to be a great night to not-remember. If you haven’t got your costume together yet, inspiration is all around on the internet and social media. Just don’t turn up in an animal skin perhaps. Animal welfare wasn’t really a thing 2000 years ago.

(photo courtesy of Toa Heftiba at https://unsplash.com/@heftiba)

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