Halloween : What it's really about.


Image :Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

Like so many holidays, the meaning of Halloween has somehow got lost in amongst the tacky plastic decorations and endless array of confectionary. Halloween at its core pre-dates even Christianity, with its roots tied firmly in pagan traditions that cross cultures. There is a wide belief that Halloween is an American tradition, and there’s a fair bit of negativity around it this reason. The truth is, it originated very firmly in Celtic Britain. Traditionally, October 31stgrew from the Celtic Festival of Samhain, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. More than that though, it was thought that on this particular night, the ether separating the spirit world and the mortal world became weak, allowing spirits to cross over and mingle with the living. For the Celts, this could be both a blessing and a curse, with spirits blamed for ruining crops and causing general havoc, but also helping Celtic priests predict the future, handy in days when the met-service didn’t exist, and modern science was a glint on the horizon. Christianity tried to absorb the tradition like it did so many others in its desire to stamp out paganism, and created ‘All Saints Day’ on November 1st, also known as ‘All Hallows’ as a kind of Samhain alternative. The pagans were a stubborn bunch though, and the tradition remained. October 31stthen became known as ‘All Hallows Eve’, which evolved into Halloween. Along the way, practices from different cultures created a melting pot of beliefs associated with the holiday, all with a common thread around death, harvest and a little bit of magic. Trick or treating is thought to have originated when Celts would dress up as demons to appease them, or at the very least remain undedicated should they happen to unwittingly cross paths with one. In Scotland and Ireland, children would sing at neighbors houses in exchange for food, offering to pray for the souls of the occupants dead relatives. Both of these traditions are thought be the basis for the ‘Trick or Treat’ tradition we know today. Jack O’ lanterns, (those carved, hollowed out pumpkins, lit with candles) were named for the mysterious lights that appear over peat bogs in Ireland (also known as Willo’wisps).

Even today, some Church groups take an anti- Halloween stance, sometimes holding alternative festivals on October 31st.to pull children away from Halloween traditions, where dressing up is acceptable, as long as it is not ‘spooky’. Does some part of us still find these ancient traditions threatening? Are we so afraid of our own mortality that even a comically ghostly dress up costume makes us uncomfortable? Is the Church still uncomfortable with witches, even the fake warehouse costume kind? In New Zealand, it only became legal to read tarot cards in 2013. Prior to that, and tarot card reader or ‘seer’ could be tried under the Witchcraft act. Recently, Witchcraft has started to be examined through a more feminist lens. Estimates suggest that over a 300 year period in Europe alone, over 40,000 so called ‘witches’, mostly female, were executed. This is thought to be a conservative estimate, actual figures could be more than double that. It did not pay to be a strong woman, especially one who did not adhere to the status quo. You could argue not much has changed, except now we trial our said ‘witches’ in gossipy groups at the school gate and on social media. Human nature has its apparent limitations. But as they say, we are the Granddaughters of the witches you could not burn. Women are stepping into their power more and more.

Image credit: Larm Rmah

Halloween is no more commercialised than Christmas or Easter, but as many of us step away from at least practicing Christianity, it is one holiday whose roots are outside of contemporary religion, making it arguably the less hypocritical of holidays to celebrate and enjoy. Carve a pumpkin and get amongst it. It’s really quite fun.

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© 2016 Claire Inkson. All photographs copyright Claire Inkson

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