History of Halloween: From Ancient Rituals to Modern Revelry

31 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Five different ways of thinking about Halloween.

People across the world are celebrating Haloween on Saturday. Today is Halloween and before you stock up on pumpkins; you need to watch this video which debunks the Americanisation of what is actually a Scottish holiday.Embrace the culmination of human transgressions from across time—from the Bible’s walking dead and Victorian corpses with corgis to a pre-Tinder horror show in the medieval kale patch.It is Halloween, the time of year when pumpkin sales go through the roof, children go trick or treating and when those celebrating dress up as witches, skeletons, ghosts and other mythical creatures.

Australia’s biggest supplier of jack-o’-lantern pumpkins, Stackelroth Farms near Bowen in Queensland, says it is only 14 years since it planted the very first crop in Australia from seed sourced in the US. It is the one night of the year when children are encouraged to be monsters, women are permitted to wear what they want (with minimal shaming), and we deliberately undo a year’s worth of parental advice about accepting candy from strangers.

The exact history of Halloween remains disputed, but it is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (Samhain was the Druidic lord of death). Already this year, in the space of barely four weeks, the farm has sold 500 tonnes of jack-o’-lanterns in Australia (at an average of five kilograms each, that is about 100,000 pumpkins), to customers including the big supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths. Most scholars agree the roots of Halloween belong in pre-Christian Celtic culture as a celebration of the harvest and the end of summer, but there’s little doubt the Christian traditions of All Hallow Even, or the eve of All Saints Day, had a big influence as well.

Trick-and-treating and carrying lanterns are seen as very American celebrations but they can be traced back to Scotland, specifically the poem ‘Halloween’ by Scottish poet Robert Burns. We’ve all been drugged by aisles of ubiquitously orange drugstore candy; but what lies beneath the cheap polyester and Nightmare on Elm Street marathons? Halloween’s traces in America go back to colonial setters but it was the second half of the 19th century where celebrations became more widespread, according to history.com. Despite U.S. evangelist Pat Robertson’s annual declaration of the dangers of Halloween — “That’s the day when millions of children and adults will be dressing up as devils, witches, and goblins … to celebrate Satan,” he said this year — some scholars dispute this. Long after the establishment of Christianity in what was once Celtic land, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honour all saints and martyrs in the 8th Century.

Even the early All Saints Days most likely took place when Christian monotheism largely excluded the idea of Satan, which developed later, writes Rogers. For this reason, certain evangelical groups to this day protest that Halloween is a pagan festival that not only celebrates the devil in plastic costume form, but actually involves the inadvertent worship of Celtic deities. In his essay Halloween: an Evolving American Consumption Ritual, scholar Russell Belk points out some interpretations of Halloween see it as diametrically opposed to other holidays.

They were also said to guide the souls of the dead in Purgatory (a potentially ineffective signal system for a disembodied soul trying to avoid hellfire). Similarly, many Celts wore masks or costumes to disguise and protect themselves from the malevolent spirits or stop the dead from recognising those individuals they had disliked during life. Halloween, he writes, is seen by some as “antifestival, and is specifically anti-home, anti-family, anti-nourishment, and anti-religion.” Despite the previous point, Belk goes on to dispute that version of Halloween. The poor would beg for food and better-off families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.

One English historian Ronald Hutton says “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces”, were used at Halloween, or Samhain, in Ireland and Scotland. What are the pumpkins for The pumpkin is known as a Jack-O-Lantern, and contrary to popular belief, it is not an American addition, despite pumpkins being indigenous to the Americas. Others say the tradition comes from an ancient Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack, who was condemned to walk for eternity between heaven and hell with only a hollowed-turnip lantern to light his way. Richard Florida, an urban thinker famous for putting value on the “creative class,” says communities with a large number of trick-or-treaters are doing something right. Either way, without doubt the traditions of Halloween spread to the US with the huge waves of Irish immigrants fleeing Ireland during the famine of the 1840s and 1850s.

Stingy Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother him for a year and that, in the event of Jack’s death, he would not claim his soul. As Robyn Walsh, a professor at the University of Miami, told me, “postmortem photography to us might seem like a morbid or even gruesome practice but, in the context of the Victorian period in which it arose, to document death in this way was sensible—even comforting.” The interest in remembering the dead and inviting them to remain close to home as a presence among the living, she added, is something that it has in common with Halloween.

From Samhain to Sambuca shots, Halloween continues to give people the opportunity to transgress ordinary religious and cultural borders, live out fantasies, and reach into the unknown.

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