24 Dec

All Hallow’s Eve, Samhuin, All Souls Day…Halloween is and always has been many different things to many different people. Over the years these things have transformed markedly, as all festivals do, to reflect the popular culture of whichever period and place it inhabits. It is safe to say that the sanitised homogenous marketed tripe shovelled down your throat in the present hasn’t always been the nom du jour. Indeed as you progress down the years, decades and centuries, the festivities take on decidedly darker airs, harking back to an age of superstition and magic, when the things that went bump in the night were more than your clumsy partner forgetting where the bedroom door is. Read on to be entertained and educated (I can’t offer anything more!).

It is commonly thought among ethnologists, folklorists and historians that what we now know as Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhuin (read “summer’s end”). This day was believed by the Celts to be the time of year when the boundaries of the ‘other’ world and our world overlapped and spirits crept into the world. It was the darkest time in their calendar and they lit large bonfires to keep the darkness away and to scare away any bad spirits that may be lurking. These bonfires later found their way into Guy Fawkes Night, but they stayed a symbol of Samhuin for many a year.

Later traditions that have become associated with Halloween, such as trick-or-treating, find their roots in Scotland and Ireland. Trick-or-treating in particular originated in Scotland with what is and was known as ‘guising’ (read ‘guy-sing’), where children would go from door to door requesting food or money. In a way, it was elaborate begging, child labour, a violation of human rights. For children it was and continues to be fun.

The Halloween of today however, truly stems from the USA. It was there that the Scottish and Irish migrants took their beliefs and it was there that these beliefs found popularity. The first mass market Halloween costumes were being produced in the USA by the 1930s and since then the Halloween industry has boomed. Now we are sold themed sweets, costumes, films, tv shows, attractions and everything in-between.

So what we have seen in this limited but hopefully interesting piece, is that Halloween had its roots in Celtic culture, moved on through the centuries and acquired new traditions while shedding others, eventually coming to the USA, where it found popularity as a secular holiday that, as time went by, was increasingly aimed at children. Now it is the second largest festive industry in the USA and is celebrated across the world. Essentially though, Halloween is different things to different people. For Neo-Pagans it is a night to do whatever they do. For Jehovah’s Witnesses it is a night to ignore, because of course anything pagan is stupid. For children it is a night to receive and stuff themselves with sweets, and that is where the essential magic lies. For don’t we all want chocolate?

Sean Cameron


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