Here it comes creeping on us. The days grow shorter, the nights grow darker, there’s a chill in the air. It is Halloween time.
Witches and goblins, ghosties and ghoulies are out and about — gorging candy and chocolates, carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples and playing devilish pranks.
Dressing up in spooky costumes, painting your face to conceal your identity, trick or treating around your neighbourhood is the fun aspects of Halloween.
While it is mainly a children’s feast, today jealous adults join in the fun. Dressing up in costumes is delightful for the young and old and now that masked balls are a rarity, grown-ups seize this day to dress up and wear masks and satisfy their fancy. Parties are held everywhere and a good time is had by all.
Like other Western traditions, the world is eager to adopt the joy and significance of these occasions, ignoring their religious identity.
Valentine spreads love, Christmas spreads joy, and Halloween, well, it spreads fun, eerie, spooky, hair-raising fun.
However, that is not how it all started.
Named All Hallows’ Eve, it started in the eighth century in the Christian calendar, to honour saints who had no memorial day and to pray for those poor souls who did not yet reach heaven. Arrangements were held on All Hallows Evening, 31 October, before All Saints’ Day, 1 November, and All Souls’ Day, 2 November..
The name was derived from the old English “hallowed” meaning holy or sanctified. With the passing of time Hallows’ Evening became Hallows’ Eve, but why stop there? It was soon contracted to Hallowe’en. The apostrophe was also dropped to give us Halloween.
The festival was first celebrated by the Celts in the fifth century BC in Great Britain: England, Ireland Scotland and North France. It fell halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It was the feast of Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning the end of summer, which was also the end of the harvest and a time for preparation for the winter, the beginning dark half of the year. 1 November was the beginning of their New Year.
On the previous evening they honoured Samhein, the Celtic god of death.
The celebration marked the start of the season of cold, darkness and decay and naturally became associated with death. Samhain was the most powerful, most feared of all their gods. They believed he allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly home that evening. Spooked enough?
The Romans conquered the Celts in 43 AD and ruled Great Britain for 400 years. Anxious to smooth the conversion process, the early church adopted existing pagan festivities and merged them into the Christian calendar.
Thus Samhain became All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day and Halloween.
Customs die hard and some of our present day traditions go back to the days of Samhain.
How grateful are we to those Irish and Scottish immigrants to the US who brought with them their Halloween customs. Once in the US, by the 1900s, Halloween, became bigger, better, more festive, more popular and now celebrated across the globe.
Commercialised to the hilt, Halloween costumes, cards, pumpkins, make-up, masks, decorations became a big business. Children prepare for weeks their costumes of choice. Even schools decorate their classrooms to add to the excitement while adults decorate the homes with cobwebs, skeletons, ghosts and skulls. Even CDs with scary squeaks and screams are available and a variety of baskets to carry your candy as you go from door to door are colourful, varied and stylish.
Carved pumpkins with candles, light up the scary images, witches’ broomsticks and wreaths in Halloween colours adorn door- fronts and public places, parks and malls are decorated in Halloween hues of orange, grey, green and black. Costumes can be anything you choose and are often inspired by popular movies or characters. Of course witches are always in.
This season Mermaids are the number one pick, followed by Spiderman, clowns, dinosauis, unicorns, pirates and rabbits.
Trick-or-treating is the highlight of the day for children. All that candy may give them a sugar rush, but it’s Halloween, a feast that has endured longer than any other. The practice is traced back to the ninth century European custom of “souling”. The poor would visit houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the home-owners’ dead relatives.
Today’s candy seems like a better exchange, especially for candy-makers. It is their best profit day bringing in $3 billion. Halloween’s magic provides big business worldwide. Estimates for the US profits is $9 billion this year.
In case you are dwelling on Samhain, the most neo-pagan movement of modern times, it is still celebrated by some Irish and Scottish Celtic neo-pagans groups like the Wiccans, arguably the most neo-pagan movement in modern times.
They too are having a ball.
But why this time? That is when the physical and supernatural worlds are closest, they say. The veil between life and death grows thin.
While Christians chose the date, “to supplant the pagan holiday with Christian observance,” according to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the Druids, priests of the Celts believed it was the day of the dead. Boooooo.
None of that for us. Let Halloween play its magic.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.