Halloween (a contraction of Hallowe’en – All Hallows’ evening), also known as All Saints’ Eve, is a festival celebrated by kids all around the world; dressing up and going trick-or-treating is a custom that has spread to different countries. Even in India, today, kids have begun celebrating Halloween and taking part in the various activities Halloween entails – spooking up their houses, dressing up and challenging each other to enter houses or areas that are believed to be haunted. However, not many people are aware of how this festival came to be what it is today. Why is Halloween the spooky festival it is today?
The History of Halloween
The Halloween that we celebrate today is an Americanized version of a British Celtic celebration. The pagan festival, Samhain, translating to ‘Summer’s end’, celebrates the end of the harvest cycle. It was believed that this was a time when the walls between the world of spirits and ours became thin, and spirits could come through and destroy their crops. As a result, the Gaels tried to appease them with food and drink and even set them a spot at the dining table; bonfires were lit to ward off spirits that were evil.
The Origin of the Costumes and Trick-or-Treating
The Celts dressed up in white with blackened faces in order to trick the evil spirits that they believed would roam the Earth of All Saints’ Day – November 1st. By the ca. 11th century, the Church had made this a tradition called ‘souling’ where all the children dressed up as demons, saints and angels and went door to door asking for soul cakes in exchange for them praying for the inhabitant’s souls. By the 19th century, instead of giving them prayers, the kids offered jokes or recitals in exchange for sweets.
The idea of ‘trick-or-treat’ first originated in America in 1927 when the tradition was adopted by American immigrants and threatening pranks were offered when sweets were denied.
The Act of Pumpkin Carving
The Gaels, during Samhain, would carve turnips to ward off evil spirits. The term “Jack O’Lantern” originated in America from the folklore Stingy Jack that told the story of Jack, who fooled a devil into buying him a drink. After his death, he was not allowed into heaven or hell and the devil threw him a burning ember which Jack kept in a turnip.
In the 1840’s the Irish immigrants in America faced a dearth of turnips to carve and hence used the more easily acquired pumpkins to continue the tradition instead.
Spooky Halloween Traditions From Around the World
Obon is a solemn festival of lanterns celebrated in Japan in the month of August, despite being in conjunction with Halloween. People light paper lanterns for their deceased friends and family and leave it afloat in the river waters in order to illuminate the way for the dead.
A version of this festival is celebrated in Korea as well where people take food or different offerings to the tombs of their deceased and thank them for their lives.
In China, Teng Chieh – the feast of the hungry ghosts, entails lighting of lanterns to guide the dead. Food is placed in front of the portraits of the deceased in order to fatten them up before the cold winters hit.
Barmbrack is perhaps the cruellest of Halloween traditions, followed closely by trick-or-treating. Instead of treating people with pranks, this Irish tradition forces them to ingest a cake concoction containing muslin wrapped thing intended to predict the future. Similar to the Mardi Gras King Cake, the Barmbrack is thought to predict wealth, love or loneliness in the life of the eater.
Day of the Dead
The Mexican custom of Dia de los Muertos is a famous Halloween tradition. It is celebrated on November 2nd, the day after the Day of the Innocents (Dia de los Inocentes). Shrines are constructed in remembrance of the dead and offered to them along with a huge feast.
In Hong Kong, the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, Yue Lan, is celebrated differently from China’s. Instead of lighting lanterns, people torch money and food instead as it is believed to be a way to pass these on to the world of the dead. Items for the dead such as food, photographs, clothing, money – anything that will give them comfort, is torched and often thrown into a bonfire.
So if you are a sceptic and doubt the existence of spirits, Halloween is the best time to stay on the lookout for one. Take a trip to India’s most haunted locations and experience what could be a life-altering spiritual encounter.