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The ghost of Halloween past

This year, we may have had to celebrate Halloween a little differently. Going from door to door asking strangers for sweets is off the cards, and we had to rethink how we can celebrate this annual tradition.

There are, of course, many Halloween traditions that we can still participate in from home. From costume competitions on Zoom and pumpkin carving with our households to hosting Netflix parties to watch scary movies, millions of people across the world will still be participating.

But where do these traditions come from? And why do we celebrate them every year?

What we know of today as Halloween likely originates from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.

Traditionally, feasts would be held on the first of November, and offerings of food would be left outside. This was to appease the ‘Aos Sí’, which are pagan spirits or fairies. It was believed this would ensure people and livestock would survive the winter.

Guising was also a part of the festival, and people would go from door to door in costume often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí.

There is evidence that Samhain has been an important date since ancient times. Some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise around the time of Samhain.

In the 9th Century, the Western Christian church designated 1st November as a day to honour all saints. Over time, All Saints’ Day began to incorporate some of the traditions of Samhain, eventually merging into modern-day Halloween.

Although Halloween is now a more commercial and secular celebration, the Christian elements of the festival remain popular in some parts of the world. These include attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead.

Some Christians historically abstained from meat on All Hallows’ Eve, a tradition reflected in the eating of certain vegetarian foods on this vigil day, including apples, potato pancakes, and soul cakes. This may have given rise to the many vegetarian foods associated with the day – such as pumpkins and toffee apples.

It was in the 19th Century, with mass Irish and Scottish immigration, that Halloween became a major holiday in America. However, at this point, it was primarily confined to the immigrant communities. By the first decade of the 20th Century, it became assimilated into mainstream American culture and was celebrated by people from across a wide range of backgrounds.

The popularity of Halloween across the Atlantic changed the way the festival is celebrated today. For example, the turnip-carving that was traditional across Scotland and Ireland evolved into pumpkin-carving. This was due to the popularity of pumpkin in the United States.

Today, Halloween is celebrated around the world in many different ways. Festivities originating in the United States, as well as traditional Celtic celebrations from across Scotland and Ireland, have influenced the way we participate in the tradition. And the festival is again adapting itself to the circumstances, with people coming up with new and creative ways to keep to customs in a socially-distanced manner.

Image: SixSigma via Wikimedia Commons