The traditions and customs of Halloween are a familiar part of our popular culture. But what is not so well known, however, are the rituals and legends; strange and funny facts; and the sometimes gruesome and horrific origins of the creepiest festival of the year (apart from the Weird Weekend, of course).
The festival of Halloween derives from the ancient pagan ceremony of Samhain, which was celebrated by the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. It was to mark the end of the summer season, and the onset of the cold darkness of the winter months. The last Holy day became known as All Hallows Eve, which became Halloween. On this night, it was believed, the spirits of the dead could walk amongst us, to haunt the towns and villages where they once lived.
The origin of Halloween goes back to before the beginnings of recorded history. To appease the evil spirits that roamed the earth on that one terrible night human sacrifices were often made, the victim’s throat cut, and the blood drank with wine and mead. These bloody rituals were carried out across the British Isles. In Ireland the festival was called O’iche shamhna; in Gaelic Scotland it was known as Samhuin. In Wales it was Calan Gaeaf; in Cornwall, Allantide. On the lsle of Man it was Hop Tu Naa. In some parts of Ireland, it was called Pooky night after a creepy and mischievous spirit called the Puca.
Mexico and other Latin American countries have their own version of Halloween, which they call The Day of the Dead. But far from celebrating the grim and gruesome aspects of the holiday, the
townspeople throw lavish parties in their local cemeteries. Whole families with their children and babies spend the afternoon sitting on their relatives' graves in the hope that their deceased loved ones will join in the fun. The festival has its origins in ancient Aztec culture and in Mexico in particular, has become an industry, with sweets and candies in the form of skulls and skeletons sold in every high street shop, as part of the celebration.
Halloween is America’s sixth most popular holiday after Christmas, Mother’s day, Valentines day, Easter, and Father’s day. Huge parties and carnivals are staged to celebrate it every year, but Britain, the place in which Halloween originated, only began to adopt modern versions of the festival in the 1980s.
It was the Irish potato famine of 1845 that drove large numbers of the population to emigrate to America. The new arrivals brought their superstition and folklore with them, and the traditions of All Hallows Eve became a part of American culture. If not for the potato famine, Halloween would have remained as a legend from Celtic mythology, and a forgotten part of our history.
In America horror film festivals are a part of Halloween, and scary films are shown around the clock. New horror movie releases are timed to coincide with the holiday to ensure maximum publicity.
In John Carpenter’s original film Halloween (1978), the horrific face of the killer Michael Meyers is actually a Captain Kirk mask, bought from a novelty shop. The hair was cropped and dyed black, the eyeholes enlarged, and the rubber ‘skin’ sprayed with white mortician’s paint.
The Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples originated in Celtic Britain, when the Romans finished their invasion in AD 43. Pagan celebrations combined with Roman festivals, and one of the adopted rituals was the worship of the Roman goddess Pomona, the deity of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol is the apple; and to pluck an apple from a barrel without using your hands became part of British and later American folklore, in that doing so would grant you happiness.
The ritual of dressing up as ghosts and spirits was to ensure protection and anonymity from the real undead creatures that walked on Halloween. In these ghoulish disguises, villagers could move among the shades of the dead unharmed, and eavesdrop on the spirits' conversation. Today, it has become fancy dress, with few people realising the macabre origin of their costumes.
As All Souls Day approached, the spirits of the dead would plague the villages, taking money and food from the terrified populace, who would consequently attempt to ‘buy off’ the evil influences with gold coins or meals cooked especially for the occasion. Some unscrupulous villagers would dress as ghosts, and demand goods and property from their neighbours, who would comply, not realising that they were being fooled. This was the beginning of the trick or treaters, a mild form of demanding money with menaces.
One of the most popular elements of Halloween is the Jack O’ Lantern, with many theories as to its origin. One of the most grisly is that in the barbaric times of Celtic Samhain the severed heads of enemy warriors were placed on poles in positions of honour at the winter feasts. These became adapted into the carved faces of the Jack O’ Lanterns. In the British Isles, the severed heads were later replaced by hollowed out turnips, lit from inside with hot coals. When Halloween took off in America, the turnip was replaced by the pumpkin, as it was subsequently in Britain in later years. Irish children have been told the legend of Stingy Jack, a farmer cast out of both Heaven and Hell, cursed to walk the earth with his lantern lighting the way. Hollow
turnips with candles inside were left in the porches of cottages in Ireland, so that Stingy Jack could use it to replace his burned-out lantern, and so not haunt the village.
The pumpkin is a fruit related to melons, gherkins and cucumbers. It has been grown and cultivated in North America for five thousand years. They were first discovered in 1584 by the French explorer Jacques Cartier. He described them as ‘gros melons’, which translated into
English as ‘pomions’, which evolved into ‘pumpkin’. Competitions are regularly staged in America to find the most extreme pumpkin. The largest pumpkin to date weighed 1,502 pounds, and was grown by Ron Wallace of Rhode Island. The largest pumpkin pie so far recorded was baked on October 8th 2005, and weighed 2,020 pounds. There are even competitions to carve a Halloween pumpkin in the shortest time. The record is held by Steve Clarke, who carved a 17 pound pumpkin in 1,14,8 minutes on December 2000.
Although most people see Halloween as harmless fun, it has a darker side. In the 1970s, a series of gruesome incidents horrified the police forces in several American states. Almost unbelievably, children were biting into apples given to them while trick-or-treating, only to
find pins, nails, and razor-blades embedded in the fruit. Serious injuries were sometimes inflicted, one child almost having his tongue severed. Hospitals had to treat so many cases that children were forbidden to accept fruit while trick-or-treating, for fear of what might have been placed inside. In recent years Halloween has come under fire from fundamentalist Christian groups, for supposedly corrupting children’s minds with ‘satanic’ symbolism and imagery, and
promoting elements of black magic and anti-Christian themes. To most people this is ridiculous, and Halloween is seen as being no more ‘satanic’ than a fun fair Ghost Train. Halloween may have had its beginnings in superstitious belief and bloody ritual, but now its gruesome origins
have become a holiday pantomime for both children and adults, and no more than simple spooky fun. We hope….