This year, more than any other so far, the growing interest in celebration for Halloween seems to have increased amongst adults, children and superstores alike within the UK. Any discerning mutterings of European recession from worried Chancellors would appear to fall on deaf pixie ears as Halloween decorations and costumes fly off the packed shelves around the country. Every shop from the local greengrocer to the florist is ablaze with bright orange pumpkins beckoning passers-by to purchase for carving their very own gruesome jack-o-lantern. Even the large branded confectionary manufacturers have jumped on to the ghost-wagon and have created eerily coloured alternatives from their usual family favourites. Within our own household the Cadbury’s ‘Scream’ Egg seems to be the current favourite.
With this phenomenon in mind, I conducted a small –scale survey amongst the shopkeepers within our own village as to why Halloween celebration grows year on year within this country. I wanted to find out where they thought the drive was behind its success ( it’s bigger than Easter in many inner city areas of latter years) ,and why children love it so much.
The general consensus I received was that of success driven by people’s imagination and the vibrant colours used within the merchandise. Everyone appeared to be unanimous in stating the commercial drive had initially appeared from American influence during the 1970’s and 80’s and had grown from there. Halloween is an evening of fun and the sheer joy of ‘trick or treating’ can be found at the top of almost every primary school aged child once October arrives. And as one brave shopkeeper pointed out to me ‘there is something innate within us which loves the thrill of the scare’.
So having observed the current approach to Halloween, I felt it was time to delve into the history of the festival and trace some origins of the favoured games we play on 31st October.
The festival of Halloween actually dates back to the Druids of ancient Britain. The final night in October indicated the end of the calendar year and was believed to be the night the dead returned to earth wishing to visit the living. For this reason people would dress to look like ghosts and spirits in the hope the ‘visitors’ would not harm them in any way. Guises as wolves in woven fur were often used, as well as hooded cloaks for individuals to hide their identities. Rituals would often be carried out on this night to identify any evil spirits within the living also. The Druid’s pagan day was eventually adopted by Christians around 850 AD and made ‘All Hallow’s Day’, or a time of honour for the saints of the church. ‘Hallow’s Eve’ or Hallowe’en was adopted as a major holiday ( in Old English it was known as ‘ealra hālgena mæssedæg’ – mass day of all saints).
Due to this festival occurring around the same time as the Celts flame orientated celebrations of ‘Samhain’, fires have always played a great part in Halloween custom. Since ghosts, witches and other evil spirits were meant to be afraid of flames it was only natural that this was observed on Halloween. Groups of village folk would stand around a large burning fire and throw rocks into the middle. Anyone throwing an exploding rock on this night would be deemed to possess evil within their souls and would be banished from the village to the next.
The use of jack-o-lanterns originally came from Ireland during the early medieval times. There the children hollowed out turnips and potatoes and cut out faces in them to ward off bad spirits. This custom came from the tale of the dead ‘Irishman Jack’ who was not welcome in heaven or hell. In order to light his way to a resting place, he carried a hollowed out turnip with the embers from Hell inside.
Much of the folklore and activity followed on Halloween to date comes from Ireland. This was carried to America between the 17th and 19th centuries when many thousands migrated across to the States igniting the imagination of many homeland children along the way.
Since those original days of religious superstition, Halloween has taken on a life of its own and today we continue to add our own spooky games , ranging from apple-bobbing, doughnut ducking and pumpkin carving competitions. Ladies down the ages have tried out the Victorian ritual of gazing into a mirror at midnight on Halloween, candle in left hand, apple in right, to tell who they will marry. The advent of film has also introduced a great plethora of spine chilling stories to frighten the most hardened of Halloween fans and keep us awake at night.
But one question still remains to be answered…. What do the spirits make of it all when October 31st arrives….?
© Tess Egerton Halloween 2011