Topic of the Day – The Surprising History of Halloween
The 31st of October always fills me with a sense of excitement, no matter how old I get. From the nights getting darker earlier to the orange leaves crunching underfoot, for me Halloween marks the beginning of the prolonged festive season intersected with cosy nights in cradling mugs of hot chocolate and cold autumnal walks.
My own earliest memories of Halloween are my dad taking me round the local graveyard at night, me riding my scooter dressed as a witch carrying my favourite toy Batty Bat… Let’s just say I was an imaginative child!
Halloween itself is often considered a very American holiday that has made its way to the UK and is slowly making its journey around the globe. For many of our Breadies in China, they may have some form of celebration of Halloween – perhaps a party held in a shopping mall, or dressing up at school – but it is likely the history and the common activities of Halloween are somewhat alien to them.
Halloween is an excellent topic to have with Breadies, it opens up the discussion about fears and festivals in general, Halloween traditions and lots of exciting vocabulary to do with witches, pumpkins and ghosts. We’ve put together a list of five interesting facts about Halloween to discuss with your students – and help you get into the spooky mood!
Halloween actually comes from Ireland and Celtic Europe
Despite its very American feel, Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain which celebrated the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn, a period associated with an increase in loss of life. This festival marked the beginning of the ‘darker half of the year’ and was seen as a liminal period in which the living world could connect with those spirits who had passed. It was a period marked with bonfires, feasts and offerings. The Catholic Church attempted to change this festival into a day to celebrate the saints (All Saint’s Day) however, as you can see today, this has been largely overshadowed by the more supernatural elements of its history.
As many emigrated from Ireland and England to America, so too the holiday emigrated, becoming enmeshed in the culture. Parades and community events were organised, trying to remove the superstitious and religious elements of the day and making it more of a community based event for the young. Now, very much a secular festival, ghosts are now horrifying and the day is more about seeing how scared you can make yourself rather than connecting with the end of the summer and those souls who have passed.
What are pumpkin lanterns all about?
Again, this tradition can be linked back to Ireland! These cute, carved pumpkins originate from the tale of Stingy Jack who made a deal with the devil, then had to walk the earth carrying a lantern carved from a turnip. Somehow the turnip morphed into a pumpkin which is no bad thing, a pumpkin looks far better than a turnip would outside your front door! The carving of pumpkins is also said to link to Samhain festival, where people would carve pumpkins either to scare away spirits, or to represent those souls who were stuck in purgatory.
Trick or Treat!
A tradition that is only recently catching on in other countries, trick or treat is where mostly children go from door to door in their local area asking for sweets and chocolate – one of the only days where it is acceptable to take candy from a stranger! But where did this particular tradition come from?
Perhaps you’ve already guessed it – it first began in Ireland! During Samhain, some people would dress up as spirits so that the real spirits wondering about would mistake them for friends, rather than people to terror. When the Catholic Church tried to turn the day into All Saints’ Day, the costumes became less ghostly and more saint and martyry with a few angels thrown in. From the many costumes you can buy these days, it seems that all traditions have blended – you can now easily find ghostly saints and scary angels alongside your ghosts and vampires.
As the season changed, Samhain became a period where the poor could go from door to door and beg for food or money in return of a prayer or a song. I’m yet to have seen anyone in my town give anything in return for sweets!
Why so many sweets?
Good question! The giving out of sweets, or candy as it is called in America, is a fairly recent phenomena, starting in the late 1940s. In the early years of Halloween, those who did not wish for the spirits to come knocking on their door would leave little spiced ‘soul’ cakes outside the door. As time went on, those early trick or treaters looking for food or money in return for prayers or songs would ask for those cakes. As America became the America it is today, cakes turned into cookies, and cookies inevitably turned into sugary goods. Somehow, wrapped up in the sugar and sweets industry, we have developed the trick or treat sugar Spooktacular event we have today.
Well there you have it! A brief history of Halloween as we have it today. Buddies, do you have any particular Halloween traditions you take part in? What about your Breadies in China? Are there any similar Chinese orientated festivals? Find out and let us know!
Until then, Happy Halloween from all of us at IQBar!