This strange Americanism has weaseled its way into our culture, slowly but with a lot of determination. Perhaps its the bonus of having yet another event to pin shopping and marketing on, perhaps it is genuinely fun, but like it or not, it seems its here to stay. I decided to get to grips with how it all came about, what’s with all the strange customs and is it really sinister?
What does Halloween mean and why is it then?
The name seems to have arisen at some point during the 16th century, possibly in Scotland to refer to the evening before the Catholic festival of All Saints Day, the name used be All Hallows Even – literally “all holies (saints) evening”, over time it was shortened Hallowe’en, and today it’s shortened to just Halloween. All Hallows Even was on the date of a previous Celtic festival celebrating the end of Summer and the harvest, where it was believed that the boundary between the spirit world and our world became thin, allowing spirits in. In Christianity this meant humans had a gap where they could have influence over the fate of their dead relatives who’d entered this world.
What’s with the scary pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns?
Consequently on All Hallows Even, many people of the Catholic faith remember the dead who are trapped in purgatory waiting to be judged – they would pray for their soul’s salvation. Part of the tradition was to carve lanterns out of turnips – vegetables harvested in the Northern Hemisphere Autumn or Fall, right at the time of All Saints day, these lanterns would be carried around during the prayers for the dead. This was a tradition brought through from Celtic pagan times where lanterns were carved in vegetables either to light the way for the souls in purgatory or to ward off evil spirits. Upon arrival in America, many found that the pumpkins abundant there in Autumn were fare more suitable and easy to carve.
Why do children Trick-or-Treat at Halloween?
This is another tradition of All Hallows Even, when the poor and children of the community would visit the houses of others to be given “Soul Cakes”, representing the souls of the household’s dead in purgatory, each cake eaten would represent a soul freed. Traditionally it was more a case of trick and treat, the trick being a hymn or prayer for the soul, for which a cake would be given, somehow over time it seemed to evolve to a case of trick OR treat where the trick would be an act of mischief or vandalism. Also it’s clear that the baking of cakes fell away with the introduction of sweets or candy to more modern society.
Why are Halloween costumes scary?
The reason for this goes back to that boundary between the spirit world and our world becoming thin on October 31st. It was believed that many spirits would come into our world, good spirits and evil spirits, the evil ones, it was believed, would try to possess the bodies of the living. In order to distract them from wanting to inhabit your body, you would dress up in masks and costumes mimicking them, in order to trick into not realising you’re human – and in theory, they should leave you alone. It makes sense then, to dress up your kids in scary costumes, to ensure these evil spirits leave them alone.
Well, there’s something for you to ponder next time you’re scoffing sweeties and dressing up like Liewe Heksie!
Jack O Lantern pic from Boxercab on Flickr
Trick or Treat pic from CraZeeCrafteeZ on Flickr
Skeleton Doll pic from Rik Hix on Flickr