Settle back children, while I tell you a tale of faeries and spirits, bonfires and turnips, guising, mumming and pranks. It’s a tale of Halloween…but maybe, not as you know it…
What we now celebrate as Halloween grew from the early Western Christian All Hallows Eve or All Saints (or Souls) Day which itself grew either from – or independently of (depending on who you read and what you believe) – the Celtic pagan festival Samhain.
In the northern hemisphere, Samhain falls at a time when the harvest has been completed, livestock has been moved down from their summer pastures and the year is done – especially as far as food production is concerned.
It’s when the veils between worlds are said to be at their thinnest, when the barren earth allows easier passage, when hungry souls come up from the Underworld wanting food and when restless souls can pass over.
The belief was also that it was a time when nature spirits or “faeries” could come into our world – and some of these had mischief in mind…
Bonfires with cleansing and protective rituals were lit, feasts were held, places were laid at the table for those who had departed this life, and offerings of food and drink were left out for wandering spirits.
In Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, in particular, dressing-up, “guising” and other pranks were part of these celebrations from as far back as the 16th century (and possibly even before this). It’s these people who brought the traditions to the New World.
Originally, the dressing up and acting (“mumming”) thing was probably to pretend to be someone else – or to impersonate the souls of the dead. The end result was to trick the spirits into leaving them alone and not taking them back through the veils to the Underworld when they went. Treats were given to the guisers as appeasement for the spirits and to protect against pranks and other faery mischiefs.
It also ties into the practice of “souling” where children, often in disguise, would go begging from door to door swapping a prayer for a soul cake. I baked some soul cakes today – although somehow I don’t think they’d go down too well with the neighbourhood children even if, historically at least, they are more appropriate than Chupa Chups (Australian lollipops). Hey ho.
Anyways from all of this came today’s custom of trick or treating.
Even the practice of carving pumpkins dates back to the Celts. Grotesque faces were carved into vegetables such as turnips and squash to scare away evil spirits, to light the way home for more kindly spirits and even to represent the souls of those trapped in purgatory.
There’s reasonable evidence that Samhain marks the end of the Celtic year. While some scholars argue that the facts to support this are a tad flimsy, who am I to let that stand in the way of a good story? It remains, however, an important date in Wiccan and Pagan calendars and is also (apparently) the best time to bury all the frustrations and disappointments of the year and leave them behind. Send them into the Underworld. Now, there’s an idea I can get on board with.
In any case, today’s Halloween comes from these pagan traditions and others like it – such as the Mexican Day of the Dead, also on October 31.
Growing up in country Australia in the ’70s and ’80’s the only exposure we got to Halloween was on American TV – and even then, we only saw those shows if the wind was blowing in the right direction and we could receive the commercial TV signal from Canberra. Halloween, as it is today with its chocolate and costumes and cards wasn’t a thing.
It has, however, become more widespread here in the last 20-30 years or so – at least the dressing up and trick or treating have, and I’ve got to say – while I’ve never done it, it looks like fun. Plus it brings a sense of old-fashioned community and neighbourhood to kids who have been taught not to knock on someone’s door or talk to strangers – while supervised, of course. In the estate where I live it’s joked that they bus the kids in.
That’s why tonight when the doorbell rings and the dog barks madly, I’ll smile sweetly and offer chocolate and lollies – saving the best ones for those kids who’ve made the most effort. After the year that one judgmental Castle Hill (Sydney) mum tutt-tutted in disappointment at my failure to have dairy-free and gluten-free treats on hand, I’ll even make sure I have that covered.
And the best thing about Halloween? Once it’s over we can legitimately start preparing for Christmas.