Thursday 19 September 2019

The Weekly Read: Think your know your ghosts from your ghouls? Here's how Halloween began

Think your know your ghosts from your ghouls? Emily Sheahan tells us how the spooky holiday came about

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Emily Sheahan

Since mid-September it has been very difficult to walk down any major street or pass by any shop without being bombarded by fake spiderwebs, pumpkins with glowing eyes, cackling witches, and just generally the colour orange. The build-up is almost a bigger deal than the day itself. Whether you choose to go all out, order your costume in advance, and spend weeks planning for a night you won’t remember, or stay at home cynical of it all, the holiday is impossible to avoid.

But why do we dress up as monsters, TV show characters, and sexy civil servants, light giant fires, drink ourselves blind, and ask strangers for sweets?

It’s widely believed to have originated as the festival of Samhain. Samhain was thought to be the division between summer and winter, light and dark. The line between this world and the spirit world was at its thinnest at this point, allowing spirits, ghosts, and fairies to pass through. This ancient Celtic festival gave us the traditions of bonfires and costumes which people used to use to ward off harmful spirits. They would dress up as evil spirits in order to blend in and avoid them.

As winter set in, in the face of decay, fires would be lit as a symbol of man’s respect for the sun and to assist it on it travels through the skies. For the ancient Celts this was a chaotic night; as the two worlds were entangled, people were advised to remain inside. While Halloween is still a chaotic night, we don’t have to worry about evil spirits or the god of the dead roaming our land.

For ancestral spirits who sought warmth, food was left out by fires that were left lighting. However if they were not pleased with the offering, bad luck would be brought upon the household. This is where we get the tradition of trick-or-treating. The “treat” being the offering and the “trick” being the consequence of an inadequate offering. Some traditions however, have no ancient origins. Pumpkin carving, for example, is an American harvest tradition.

When Christianity joined the party, it introduced November 1 as All Hallows Day (All Saint’s Day), making Samhain All Hallows’ Eve, eventually becoming Halloween. All Souls’ Day (in honour of the dead) followed on November 2. It is believed that this was introduced as the church’s attempt to remove the Celtic festival with a church oriented alternative.

Halloween has become a commercial holiday but when did these ancient traditions become subject to sugar highs and company profit? Unsurprisingly, this happened when Halloween travelled along with the migrating Irish to America, fleeing the famine. Following America’s influx of immigrants in the late 1800s, traditions were thrown in a mixing pot and eventually Halloween started to become a holiday focused around community. As a result of this, many traditions have almost completely died out. Some however, were brought over. In Ireland for example, a cook would bury a ring in mashed potatoes which would bring true love to whoever found it. This isn’t far off our traditional Bairín Breac.

Many traditions had to do with young women finding love. In Scotland, fortune-tellers would instruct young woman to assign each of her suitors to a hazelnut and then toss them in a fire. The nut that burned to ash instead of popping was said to identify her future husband.

Halloween had left behind it’s Celtic roots become a secular holiday by the 1930s. Trick-or treating, parties for both children and adults, parades, games, and not to forget, vandalism,

began to form the Halloween we know today. So if you’re out getting plastered dressed as a big pink bunny, spare a thought for your Celtic ancestors as they may be too may be out, roaming the streets of Dublin.

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