Halloween: Its History and Traditions
By: Anna Chua
Double, double, toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Ever since childhood, it seems that we all have a fondness for being frightened – with ghost stories, images of witches and monsters, horror films or haunted places. Indeed, all over the world, this business of haunting and being haunted, of scaring and being scared is being celebrated during one colorful and merry occasion: Halloween.
Halloween, however, wasn’t always the happy (and rather expensive, I might add) occasion that it now is. Trick-or-treating, carving jack-o lanterns and holding parties are a thing of the present age. Whereas the current celebrations seem to hint of enjoyment and celebration, the roots of Halloween are, in fact, rather solemn.
Halloween has its origins with the ancient Celts. There were supposedly four major holy days, called “fire festivals”, which were celebrated by the druids who occupied the Celtic territory. Among these four, the most important was Samhain, which was celebrated on November first, because it marked the Celtic New Year and because it marked the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter, the Dark Half of the Year.
Being “between” seasons or years, Samhain was considered a very magical time, when the dead walk among the living and the veils between past, present and future may be lifted in prophecy and divination. And as was tradition during those times, a day began on sundown of the night before. Samhain thus began at sundown on October 31 and extended into the first of November. According to the Celtic pagan religion, the spirits of those who had died roamed the earth on Samhain evening. To ward of spirits, the Celts offered food and drink to them and performed Druid rituals.
In time, Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. In the process of incorporating the Celts into the Holy Roman Empire and converting them to Christianity, Catholic tradition and pagan beliefs were fused together. The Western Christian calendar moved its celebration of All Saints’ Day to November first, and the night before – Samhain – was called the evening of “All Hallows”, which was eventually contracted into “Hallows’ e’en” or Halloween.
Despite such serious origins, Halloween today has become more of a children’s holiday rather than anything else. Different nations all over the world all have their own customs and traditions, but generally all of them have some relation to sweets and trick-or-treating and to the malevolent creatures of the underworld that we all have come to associate with Halloween.
On Halloween night in present-day Ireland, adults and children dress up as creatures from the underworld, light bonfires, and enjoy spectacular fireworks displays. The children knock on the neighbors' doors, in order to gather fruit, nuts, and sweets for the Halloween festival. Games are often played, and Irish children have a week-long Halloween holiday.
Nowhere is Halloween celebrated with as much color and excitement as it is un the United States and in Canada. Trick-or-treating has become a tradition that most children look forward to, and indeed, the National Confectioners Association reported in 2005 that 80 percent of American adults planned to give out candy to trick-or-treaters, and that 93 percent of children planned to go trick-or-treating. The occasion has become highly commercialized, with industries churning out mass-produced costumes and confectionery manufacturers responding magnificently to the occasion. Parades and themed parties are often held, as well as competitions for best costumes.
Halloween celebrations in Britain received a significant influence from the US in the late 1980s. Trick-or-treat and lantern carving was repopularized, and adult costume parties and pub parties are often heard of. Bobbing for apples, playing hide-and-seek and telling ghost stories are done. In various parts of Britain, a ‘holy day’ is also celebrated separately on November 4, with more or less the same principles as Halloween.
Halloween has indeed changed throughout the years. From a solemn Druid festival, it has turned into an event that the world celebrates with joy and anticipation. One thing that it does not cease to do, however, is to bring together people and bind them in happiness, enjoyment and celebration.