I have an early memory of trick-or-treating in Washington DC. I was very young but remember a vague mix of costumes, excitement, walking from house to house in the dark, doors opening – and, most of all, getting handfuls of candy from smiling adults inviting us kids to stick our hands in bowls full of sweets.
I’m sure our parents led us to the homes of friends and neighbours and we didn’t stray far, but still it was a great adventure. Dressing up, staying up late, getting attention from all those adults – and candy too! Kid heaven.
Later in life, living in England then in Scotland, Halloween became a good excuse for a party, still with dressing up, and a watershed in the year helping me accept that summer was over, autumn was in full swing and a long dark British winter lay ahead before the cold earth would warm up again.
Halloween is thought to originate in the Celtic festival of Samuin. The Old Irish word means the end of summer. What a rational thought to consciously mark the very end of what the French call the beaux jours – the fine days – and what a great idea to have a celebration filled with light to lift the spirits as the days get shorter, colder and darker.
Harvest time was a clear turning point in the year for agricultural society. So Samuin, and later Halloween, was a time for very practical preparatory work. Winter was coming and supplies had to be laid in. Livestock had to be slaughtered. Harvested crops and preserves had to be safely stored. The growing and gathering in was done. The storing and winter consumption was about to start. Feasting was a way to put on a few pounds before the meagre winter months set in.
Lanterns – in hollowed-out pumpkins or otherwise – candles and fires all hark back to the early tradition of lighting and warming the community ahead of winter’s onset. And, of course, using the classic autumn crop, the pumpkin, as part of the festival.
The “ghostly”, ghoulish or spiritual aspect of Halloween stems from the fact that the ancient Celts believed that the ‘join’ between this world and ‘the next’ became wafer thin at Samhain. It was the time of year, according to Celtic belief, when spirits, malign and gentle, could slip into our world and make their presence felt. Consequently it was a time when ancestors were to be honoured and welcomed into the home while supposed evil spirits were to be driven off. The idea behind Halloween masks is to disguise yourself as a scary spirit in an effort to deter ghouls.
The word Halloween was adopted in the 16th century, but is of Old English derivation. All Hallows was the Old English term for the feast of All Saints. The custom of ‘souling’ involved commemorating the dead in purgatory with lanterns lit by candles. Although Americans have traditionally made pumpkin lanterns, the Celts used turnips, lighting them with candles and leaving them visible in homes to frighten off evil spirits.
The American custom of trick-or-treating, thrilling for so many young kids, goes back to the Middle Ages. The poor in Ireland and Britain would trudge from door to door offering to pray for your deceased relatives if you handed over a little food and drink. The Scottish refer to trick-or-treating as ‘guising’. As at Christmas with carol singing, the children have to tell a story or sing a song to get their reward.
In recent years there have been attempts to denigrate Halloween as a wicked pagan festival, a heathen event with unhealthy occult content. What claptrap. Halloween certainly features the themes of death, spirits, good and evil, magic and mystery and that’s the whole point. It’s one of those few times in the year when adults and children can play with their imaginations if they want to and step back from mundane concerns. Kids love fooling around making props like vampires, black cats, witches’ broomsticks, skeletons, ghosts, bats and werewolves. They can use make-up and face paint with abandon and appreciate the idea that the orange and black associated with Halloween symbolise light and dark, heat and cold – fire and winter.
We have few enough clear links to our origins and early customs. Halloween is one of the great ones and though it’s horribly commercialised it can still be a good way to get in touch with our history and some fundamental aspects of life. It all depends what content we give to Halloween: cheap plastic masks and shop-bought pumpkin lanters – or something a little more thought-through and substantial.