Halloween is my favourite holiday and I miss it. Although it’s slowly catching on, Australia doesn’t celebrate it on the grand scale Americans do.
Halloween, a contraction for All Hallow’s Evening, is a holiday observed on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian festival of All Hallows. Also known as All Saints Day, it’s a day that commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. In other words, it is a day to remember the dead. The origin of the word Halloween and the unmovable calendar date of 31 October are Christian, but the beliefs and traditions of Halloween are much older. These are rooted in western European harvest festivals and pagan festivals of the dead, particularly the Celtic Samhain.
Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the darker half of the year. It was a time when cattle were brought back from the summer pastures and livestock were slaughtered. Bonfires were lit and rituals were held to ensure people would survive the harsh winter coming. Samhain occurred during a liminal period. That is, it occupied a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. Samhain occurred between autumn and winter. It was believed that the door to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead and other spirits to enter our world. Kinship was extremely important in the ancient pagan world and so feasts were held to honour ancestors. Turnips were carved and used as lanterns to help lead souls. On the other hand, people needed to protect themselves from harmful spirits. This is thought to have led to the custom of guising – disguising oneself. Divination was also popular at this time.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity developed another tradition that would remain central to Halloween: souling. Medieval Christians baked soul cakes, which were given to soulers, mainly children and the poor, who went from door to door on Halloween praying and singing for the dead. Each cake eaten represented a soul freed from Purgatory. This practice is believed to be the origin of modern trick-or-treating.
In America, Halloween was not recognised until the 20th century. In Britain, both the pagan customs and the Christian theology of Halloween came under attack during the Reformation, and the holiday’s popularity waned. The Puritans of New England maintained strong opposition to the Halloween. It wasn’t until mass Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century that Halloween was brought to North America with its mix of pagan and Christian traditions.
In North America, Halloween took on a new life. The turnip, previously used for carving lamps, was replaced by the native pumpkin, which was already associated with the fall and the harvest. Softer and larger, it was easier to carve than a turnip. Gothic and horror literature, and especially movies, gave Halloween the themes of horror, evil, the occult, and monsters that it didn’t originally have. Capitalism drove a new thriving market of candy, costumes, decorations, haunted houses, and parties.
For contemporary Pagans, like me, Halloween retains the sacredness and solemnity of Samhain. We may not slaughter livestock or worry about how we’re going to get through the harsh winter any more, but we internalise the concept of the harvest. We reflect on what we’ve metaphorically reaped through the year and we honour our ancestors. I’ve celebrated Halloween most of my life, not in a Christian way, but in that American way of carving pumpkins, decorating the house, dressing up, and trick-or-treating.
It’s spring in Australia. On the pagan calendar, which is based on seasons not dates, it’s time for Beltaine, the spring festival, not Samhain. Local Pagans are celebrating Beltaine. Like Christmas, Halloween in Australia is divorced from its seasonal origins. It feels strange to celebrate a holiday visibly marked by autumn colours and harvest in the spring. I guess we need to re-envision it for the Southern Hemisphere just as the Irish and Scottish adapted it to the New World and America adopted it in its own unique fashion.
I’m going to celebrate Halloween. I know I’ll be in a minority. Australians generally frown upon Halloween as having little relevance to Australian culture and as an unwanted American influence. Some parents don’t like the idea of trick-or-treating, which was such a joy of my childhood. But there is a slow and steady rise in Halloween celebrations and the local supermarkets have now begun to carry the big orange pumpkins that Americans know so well. So, I’ll be purchasing one and invite others to as well and have them over for a fun afternoon of carving followed by dinner. On Halloween, I’ll place my jack-o’-lantern outside and have a bag of candy ready.
What will you be doing this Halloween?