Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween - apparently, not invented by Hallmark

I've never been a fan of Halloween - it's always been a slightly puzzling Americanised tradition I only read about in Sweet Valley Twins books or saw in films. But, my daughter has a really cute Little Red Riding Hood outfit we got for Bookweek a few months ago, and it'd be a shame to wear it only once! So this year, I'm going to suspend my cynicism and just get involved and have fun. My Tinkerbell costume is hanging at the ready (not scary I know, but it's pretty short and my legs aren't supermodel-esque so a few people will be given a fright, no doubt).

Being the curious soul that I am, and also so I can justify this sudden change of heart, I decided to look into the origins of Halloween. It makes the whole dressup, carved pumpkins and faux spider webs seem a bit more classy if you can back it up with a few Stephen Fry style quotations. Plus, it's sure to impress intoxicated naughty vampire nurses/gothic porn star/assorted pseudo-dead types at the pub.

It would appear Halloween originated in an ancient Gaelic tradition known as Samhain (sow-in). This came up on several Google searches, so it must be true. Samhain celebrates the end of the 'light' half of the year and the beginning of the 'dark' half, making the basis of Halloween as about as relevant as snow globes at Christmas over here. But anyway. Other Celts held similar festivals, because it was believed that the border between this world and the next became thinner at this time of year, letting the good, the bad and the ugly of the spirit world pass through. By wearing a mask and disguising yourself, you escaped harm from these spirits; though presumably slutty vampire costumes will attract attention, so be warned...

When the Romans conquered the Celts the incorporated the festival of Feralia, their own late October festival of the dead, into Samhain. When it became fashionable to be Christian, various Popes called Gregory tried to downplay this pagan festival by moving All Saint's Day to Nov 1st. Thus, the eve before All Saint's Day became All Hallow's Eve, which in our lazy lexicon eventually became Halloween.

The carving of pumpkins into Jack-o-Lanterns has various origins. One version involves a greedy old drunk Irish farmer known as Stingy Jack, possibly fuming at what a comical stereotype he'd become, who tricked the devil into climbing a tree, and trapped him there by carving a cross into the trunk. The devil then cursed him to wander forever at night with the only light he had, a candle inside a hollowed turnip. Whether or not the devil is still up that tree is unknown...just as colourful is the story that wives in English villages used hollwed out vegies as lanterns when they were out at night looking for their intoxicated husbands. The men's beer goggles mistook the lanterns for ghouls and ran away in fright, to the great amusement of the wives (although this does defeat the purpose of going out to look for them in the first place). The women thought it was so funny that they and the children continued the tradition.

Pumpkin carving didn't actually catch on until the 1800's, when Eurpoean immigrants headed Stateside. The folk back in Old Blighty didn't actually have pumpkins, so imagine their delight at being able to carve these big orange things instead of turnips! Catching on in the Southern colonies first (those crusty old Protestants up north wouldn't hear of such nonsense), by the turn of the 20th century the whole country was celebrating with mischief, fireworks, bonfires and fortune telling. Unfortunately the KKK saw this time of year as free reign to don their white sheets and hang and burn things with abandon, and many pranks turned into vandalism and crime. The 20's to the 50's saw a move to make the celebration less ghoulish and more about, erm, commercialism. Well ok they didn't say that, but it was developing into the horrific marketing ploy that we know and love today. Buy costumes, lollies, decorations, chuck a party...and according to Wikipedia, in 2006 Americans were expected to spend a whopping $4.6 billion on Halloween. That's a whole lotta pumpkin.


  1. Wow Kat. You sound like our guide when we were touring around Ireland! Now, what do you know about 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' because that's what will qualify you for Scotland! hehe