Supermarket shelves will soon give way under the weight of pumpkins with closets clogged with fancy dress clothes, and there can only be one reason: Halloween, the spooky holiday that is celebrated every year on October 31st, is almost here.
More commonly known as Halloween or Hallowe’en (a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening), the spooky festival is also referred to as Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve. It is the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Saints, also known as All Saints.
In recent years there have been complaints about the “Americanized” event dominating British streets in late October, with some doubts as to why we celebrate Halloween in the UK, however the tradition originally started on this side of the pond. But how did it evolve into the costume competition it is today?
Why do we celebrate Halloween and when did it start in the UK?
The Americanized Halloween we experience today actually originated in the Celtic fringes of Britain, and has been adapted over the decades by Christian traditions, immigrant conventions and an insatiable craving for sweets.
The origin of the holiday is controversial and there are both pagan and Christian practices that have evolved into what Halloween is today.
Some believe it comes from the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, which means “End of Summer” which celebrated the end of the harvest season.
The Gaels believed it was a time when the walls between our world and the next became thin and porous, allowing spirits to pass through, come back to life that day and damage their crops. The seats were set at the table to appease and welcome the spirits. The Gaels also offered food and drink and lit bonfires to ward off evil spirits.
The origins of trick or treating and disguise date back to the 16th century in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where people went door to door in costume asking for food in exchange for a poem or song.
Many disguised themselves as souls of the dead and it was believed that they were protecting themselves from spirits by impersonating them. More information below.
The Christian origin of the feast is that it falls in the days preceding the feast of All Saints, set in the eighth century to try to suppress pagan celebrations. Christians would honor the saints and pray for souls who have not yet reached heaven.
What does Halloween have to do with disguise?
Celts dressed in white with blackened faces during the feast of Samhain to deceive the evil spirits who believed they roamed the earth before All Saints’ Day, November 1st.
In the 11th century, this had been adapted by the Church into a tradition called “soul”, which is seen as the origin of the trick or treat. Children go from door to door, asking for sweets of the soul in exchange for praying for the souls of friends and relatives.
They were disguised as angels, demons or saints. Soul cakes were sweet, with a cross marked on top and when eaten they represented a soul freed from purgatory.
Nicholas Rogers, a York University historian, says that when people prayed for the dead at Hallow Mass, they disguised themselves. When he prayed for fertile marriages, “the choir boys in churches disguised themselves as virgins. So there was a certain degree of disguise in the real All Hallow’s Eve ceremony.”
In the 19th century, souling gave way to guising or mumming, when children offered songs, poems and jokes – instead of prayer – in exchange for fruit or money.
The phrase trick or treat was first used in America in 1927, with traditions brought to America by immigrants. Guising gave way to menacing jokes in exchange for sweets.
After a brief hiatus during sugar rations during World War II, Halloween became a popular holiday that revolved around children, with the newly built suburbs providing a safe place for children to roam freely.
Costumes became more adventurous: in the Victorian era, they were influenced by Gothic themes in literature and dressed as bats and ghosts or what looked exotic, such as an Egyptian pharaoh. Later, the costumes were influenced by pop culture and became more sexualized in the 1970s.
Many of us have fallen victim to a scary Halloween prank, or have even played the bad trickster ourselves. From jumping out of the bushes dressed as zombies or scaring people in their sleep like ghosts, the terrifying list of possibilities is endless.
From turnip to pumpkin carving
Pumpkin carving originates from the Samhain festival, when the Gaels carved turnips to ward off spirits and prevent fairies from settling in homes.
One theory explaining the Americanized name Jack O’Lantern came from the folklore story of Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil into buying him a drink. He was not allowed to enter heaven or hell – and when he died, the devil threw him a glowing ember which he held in a turnip.
The influx of Irish immigrants into North America in the 1840s could not find turnips to carve, as was tradition, so they used the most readily available pumpkin into which they carved scary faces.
In the 1920s, pumpkin carving was widespread throughout America and Halloween was a big party with disguises and trick or treating.
Halloween traditions around the world
In Czech culture, chairs for deceased family members are placed by the fire on Halloween night along with chairs for every living thing.
In Austria, some people leave bread, water and a lighted lamp on the table before going to bed. It is believed that this will welcome dead souls to Earth.
Meanwhile, in Germany, people hide their knives to make sure none of the returning spirits get harmed or try to harm them!
Barmbrack, a fruit cake, is used as part of a future prediction game in Ireland. The muslin-wrapped treats are cooked inside. If a ring is found, it means that the person will get married soon; a piece of straw means a prosperous year is coming; a pea means that the person will not get married that year; a stick means an unhappy marriage or dispute; a coin represents good luck.
The city of Kawasaki in Japan holds an annual Halloween costume parade. More than 100,000 watch it and, traditionally, 2,500 people participate.
In Manila, the capital of the Philippines, pets are also in action. An annual costume contest aims to raise money for animal welfare groups.
This article is kept up to date with the latest information.