Updated: Mar 4
It’s almost Halloween again! All Hallows Eve, the festival for Remembrance of the Dead.
The origins and evolution of this festival are so convoluted that it’s pointless trying to summarise them in a short post. Suffice to say, seeds were planted a couple of millennia ago for a significant religio-cultural holiday to honour the dead. Over the centuries it got shifted around the calendar until sometime in the Middle Ages when it settled on 31st October. This date allowed the Medieval Church to co-opt the old Celtic festival of Samhain (Summer’s End) or its equivalents, which took place on November 1st. These could be loosely interpreted as ‘festivals of the dead’ because they marked the beginning of winter, the cyclical ‘death’ of the natural world. The two have since become intimately intertwined in popular consciousness.
Many of the ‘modern’ practices associated with this hybrid festival aren’t modern at all; the oft-maligned ‘trick-or-treat’ for instance. There’s plenty of historical evidence of people dressing up as faeries or spirits and going door-to-door begging favours. Guising and Souling were just two variations of this. And the pumpkin lantern is just a North American variant of the turnip or mangle wurzle lantern used in Europe.
And what of the overwhelmingly horrific associations of modern Halloween? This is something else that isn’t modern. Medieval Christians believed that various capricious and malevolent spirits (faeries, elves etc) would penetrate ‘the veil’ and walk amongst us on Halloween. Most of these were iterations of the old pagan deities that Christianity had demoted and re-imagined as evil sprites or demons. Victorian Gothic novelists and Hollywood film makers simply provided us with new names and clothes for these old characters.
I’ve often heard people say (sometimes lament!) that we’ve imported our celebration of Halloween from America; that it’s all a bit un-British. Au contraire! Although there is plenty of historical evidence of Americans celebrating Halloween, it was actively discouraged by the Puritan authorities during the colonial era. It was the Scots and Irish immigrants of the later 18th century who introduced the special degree of Halloween enthusiasm that we might think of as typically 'American'.
And Halloween has become pan-cultural. There are those who oppose its spread on religious grounds; for instance within Islam and Judaism. But even in these traditions there are scholars who consider participation in Halloween celebrations acceptable. Nonetheless some worry that it threatens to eclipse indigenous cultural traditions. It’s a tricky issue to be sure, but there’s something about Halloween that appeals across cultures. In many ways it has parallels in Christmas, an equally popular (and contentious) festival with pan-cultural appeal. I suppose it has the advantage (?) over Christmas of a more diverse, exotic and debatable pedigree and a much more organic and anarchic evolution. Meaning what? Meaning that it’s arguably harder these days to accuse it of being the property of any one culture. Or perhaps you feel that’s half the problem?
For good or ill, Halloween is now a big event in our cultural calendar. If you want to celebrate there are so many ways you can do it. But there’s only a week left now to get your plans together so you’d better crack on!
As soon as you’ve finished reading this of course.
“A soul cake,
a soul cake,
please good missus,
a soul cake.
an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
any good thing to make us all merry”
Whatever you do, I wish you a soulful Halloween!