The sound of cackling witches and howling ghouls fills NSW shops as Halloween approaches. A tradition second only to Christmas in America, Australians have jumped onto the bandwagon and Halloween increases in popularity every year. What is it about the fake blood, horrific masks and wigs dominating the aisles that so draws in consumers? Is it the mystique and superstitions that surround this festival? The ghost stories as old as time?
Like any other festival, Halloween is one that has evolved and changed throughout history. Here’s a quick rundown on how the majority of our current Halloween traditions are rooted in its past.
Halloween’s ancient roots lay in the pagan festival Samhain, celebrated by the Celts (one of the original inhabitants of Britain and Ireland over 2000 years ago).
Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. It was believed to be a time where the veil between life and death blurred. The dead in the form of ghosts and other spirits from the Otherworld were believed to roam the earth on this day.
- People left food and drink on their door steps for the appeasement of particularly malevolent spirits.
- When people left their houses, they would wear masks to appear as fellow spirits and prevent harm to themselves.
- Sacred bonfires were built and animals and crops were sacrificed.
- Fortunes were foretold.
All Saints Day and The Festival of Pomona
By the 8th century, the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Britain and Ireland. A lot of traditions had been merged or replaced.
- A Roman festival to celebrate the harvest was carried to Britain. This harvest festival had been dedicated to Pomona, the Roman Goddess of abundance, who was associated with fruit trees, orchards and gardens. The festival focused on her association with apples and a lot of the games and rituals related to courtship and marriage.
- All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day was a feast conducted on November 1 to honour all Christian saints and martyrs. Naturally, the night before (September 31st) was known as All Hallows Eve, which was later called Halloween.
Whether this combo of the Roman Festivals of Pomona and All Saints Day was an intentional replacement of the pagan Samhain or a natural and gradual occurrence where different cultures combine is debatable. Here are some of the traditions that came from the festival now known as Halloween.
- Bobbing for apples. A form of fortune telling incorporated into the tradition of Halloween where the first to get an apple from the water-filled bucket without the use of hands was foretold to be the first to marry.
- ‘Souling.’ Instead of leaving food and wine on their doorsteps to appease spirits, the needy would beg for food in return for prayers for the dead. Wealthy children also tended to participate.
- Another early form of trick or treating was known as ‘Guising’ or ‘Mumming’ where young people would dress up in costume and sing, recite poetry, enact plays and tell jokes in order to collect food, wine and money.
- The original Jack-o’-lantern was based on an old Irish tale about a man called Stingy Jack. As a result, carved turnips, beets and potatoes were used as lanterns during Halloween.
Halloween moves to America
By the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants carried Halloween to America. As is usually the case when a festival is displaced, some traditions changed while others stayed the same.
- Trick or treating still involved wearing costumes and going from door to door asking for food or money.
- The Jack-o’-lantern was changed to carved pumpkins with candles inside them
- Witchcraft via fortune telling (also known as divination) was still a popular element of Halloween.
- Apple skins in one continuous strip was thrown over the shoulder and would supposedly land in the shape of a young woman’s future husband’s name or initials.
- A midnight glance into the mirror by candlelight was a tradition to perceive a future husband’s face over one’s shoulder. This later turned into the ritual “Bloody Mary.”
- The major focus of Halloween in this time period was pranks and tricks. However, these escalated in severity until the pranks started becoming dangerous and the ‘tricks’ were deemed vandalism.
A Family Oriented Halloween
During the late 1800s, the focus of Halloween changed yet again. Superstitions regarding ghosts and spirits, witchcraft, divination and cruel pranks decreased as there was a move to make the festival more family and community friendly.
- Trick-or-treating became more popular. However, until the 1950s, the treats were not necessarily lollies and chocolates but toys, coins, fruits and nuts.
- Costumes and disguise continue in their popularity to this day. Nowadays, superheroes, princesses and pirates are also a popular way to dress up. No longer are kids and adults limited by supernatural monsters like ghosts, vampires, witches and zombies.
- Halloween parties for kids and adults are now opportunities to socialise, have good food and try to scare one another instead of rituals to prevent ghosts from harming you.
There you have it folks, the origins and changes of the popular festival Halloween from its superstitious pagan origins to its current state.
Hope you all have yourselves a sweet and spooky Halloween!