Written by Jessica Maberly
Third Year History Undergraduate
Halloween is often described as the one night of the year that the portal between the world of the evil dead and the world of the living opens, allowing damned souls and unspeakable creatures to roam this world, leaving chaos, destruction and evil in their wake… it is also often described as the one night of the year children can interrupt people’s otherwise rather pleasant evenings, demanding to be given sweets.
It tends to be a day that people either love or hate. For all those who dislike Halloween, regarding it as an overly commercialised, Americanised, or even pointless time of year, it is perhaps worth finding out a little about the history of it. Without the context of its historical development it can certainly seem a rather strange celebration. Spiders, skeletons, vampires, pumpkins, witches, gravestones… all things haunted, cursed, magical, evil and dead get there moment of glory on this day of gore and fright. But why?
For all those who dislike Halloween, regarding it as an overly commercialised, Americanised, or even pointless time of year, it is perhaps worth finding out a little about the history of it.
Like many of the yearly holidays we celebrate, Halloween (also known as Hallowe’en, and All Hallows’ Eve) seems to have its roots in certain European pagan festivals, such as harvest celebrations and days of the dead, and in particular the Celtic celebration of Samhain. It was then believed to have been adopted and adapted by Christian tradition, though as with anything, there is historical debate surrounding its creation and evolution.
Most people are aware of the stories – whether myth or fact – surrounding certain traditions of Christmas (for example the story of St. Nicholas is believed to be one of the foundation stones of the mythical – or, for those who are still children at heart, very real – figure of Santa Claus). However it seems fewer people are clued up on where the seemingly rather random customs and activities linked with Halloween come from.
Dressing up in costumes at this time of year perhaps began with the Ancient Celts, who dressed up in animal skins and other things to celebrate Samhain, and later, people began dressing up as ghoulish creatures so as not to be recognised by the evil spirits believed to be roaming the world on this one night of the year. Dressing up (though not so much in animal skins) has been, and still is, a prominent Halloween tradition in England and Ireland.
However, the kinds of things we dress up as seems to be changing. In Britain, the traditional idea is still to wear costumes of scary creatures/people/things, such as witches, vampires, and Frankenstein’s monster. But, due to North American influence, this is perhaps changing, with the trend becoming just dress up in any fancy-dress costume. The popular film Mean Girls highlights this shift in attitude in the scene where Cady, the main character, dresses as an ‘ex-wife’ for a Halloween party, wearing an old wedding dress, false teeth, a black wig, and blood… all good, stock, Halloween items, only to be confronted with genuine shock and horror, and the question ‘why are you dressed so scary?’ The lesser focus on all things terrifying is due to a movement in America in the late 1800s to make Halloween less ‘scary’ and more about ‘community’.
Another of the most well-known and practised Halloween traditions is that of carving pumpkins, or ‘jack o’ lanterns’. According to the Irish legend, a man named Jack played tricks on the Devil to prolong his time on earth and prevent the Devil claiming his soul, but when he died, God would not let him into Heaven, and the Devil did take him to Hell. Stuck in this world, neither dead nor alive, he was sent off by the Devil with just a lump of coal for light. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the coal inside to keep it burning, and has been roaming the Earth with ever since… People in Scotland and Ireland carved scary faces into potatoes and turnips to keep Jack and other evil spirits away, and soon, the pumpkin took over as the protective ‘lantern’.
What these scary vegetables don’t seem to keep away, however, is children. The tradition of ‘trick-or-treating’ probably dates back to the giving of ‘soul cakes’ to the poor during All Souls’ Day parades in England. In return for the soul cakes, usually pastries, people would promise to pray for the dead relatives of those who were giving them out. This practice of ‘going-a-souling’ then became the practice of children visiting neighbourhood homes to ask for food and sweets. However, historically in Scotland, the idea was that children would be given food or money by their neighbours to roam the streets where they lived dressed as an evil spirit to ward the real ones away. In modern day Scotland it is customary for children to perform a song, or tell a story, to receive sweets and goodies.
There are many other Halloween customs that have been practised and enjoyed throughout its history, some of which are still practised today, and many of which aren’t. If you are someone who despises the commercialisation of Halloween, perhaps it would be worth being a little more creative this year. Why not dig out some old scary stories to read aloud, or make some of your own ‘soul cakes’?
If you are someone who despises the commercialisation of Halloween, perhaps it would be worth being a little more creative this year. Why not dig out some old scary stories to read aloud, or make some of your own ‘soul cakes’?
As a holiday with deep roots in so many parts of European and American culture, and one which stands out among other holidays with its deliciously dark nature, its relation to the idea of the spirits and souls of the deceased still remains strong. Whether or not you like Halloween as a celebration, it is easy to appreciate its long and complex history. With its pagan, Christian and modern twists, there is something in this unique day for most – even for those who usually spend it behind the couch or with a disconnected doorbell.
And as my own personal conclusion on the subject of Halloween, in the words of the wonderfully dark Wednesday Addams (from The Addams Family, 1965):
‘We like it. It’s so nice and eerie.’