Halloween for Everyone
Halloween is my favorite holiday and I’m really missing it. Although it’s slowly catching on, Australia doesn’t celebrate Halloween on the grand scale Americans do because Halloween as we know it is largely an American phenomenon.
Halloween, a contraction for All Hallow’s Evening, is a holiday observed on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian festival of All Hallows, also known as All Saints Day, a day that commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. In other words, a day to remember the dead. Although the origin of the word Halloween is Christian and so is the unmovable calendar date of October 31, the holiday itself is rooted in western European harvest festivals and pagan festivals of the dead, particularly the Celtic Samhain.
Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year. It was a time when cattle were brought back from the summer pastures and livestock were slaughtered. Bonfires were lit and rituals were held to ensure people would survive the harsh winter coming. Because Samhain occurred during a liminal period – that is, at the boundary between fall and winter – it was believed the door to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead and other spirits to enter our world. Kinship was extremely important in the ancient pagan world and so feasts were held and the dead were honored. Turnips were carved as lanterns to help lead souls. On the other hand, people needed to protect themselves from harmful spirits and this is thought to have led to the custom of guising. Divination was also popular at this time.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity developed another tradition that would remain central to Halloween: souling. Medieval Christians baked soul cakes, which were given to soulers – mainly children and the poor – who went from door to door on Halloween praying and singing for the dead. Each cake eaten represented a soul freed from Purgatory. This practice is believed to be the origin of modern trick-or-treating, where disguised children travel from house to house asking for treats with the question “Trick or treat?” The trick is a (usually idle) threat to perform mischief on the homeowner if no treat is given.
In America, Halloween was not recognized until the 20th century. In Britain, both the Pagan customs and the Christian theology of Halloween came under attack during the Reformation and the holiday’s popularity waned. Consequently, the Puritans of New England maintained strong opposition to the holiday. It wasn’t until mass Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century that Halloween was brought to North America with its mix of pagan and Christian traditions.
In North America, Halloween takes on a new life. The turnip, previously used for carving lamps, is replaced by the native pumpkin, which was already conveniently associated with the fall and the harvest and which is softer and larger, making it easier to carve than a turnip. Gothic and horror literature and especially movies lend Halloween the themes of horror, evil, the occult, and monsters that it didn’t originally have. Capitalism drives a new thriving market of candy, costumes, and decorations not to mention haunted houses and parties.
For contemporary Pagans, like myself, Halloween still retains the sacredness and solemnity of Samhain. We may not slaughter livestock or worry about how we’re going to get through the harsh winter anymore, but we internalize the concept of the harvest and reflect on what we’ve metaphorically reaped through the year, and we honor our ancestors. I’ve also celebrated Halloween most of my life, not in a Christian way, but in that American way of carving pumpkins, decorating the house with fall colors and scarecrows, getting dressed up, and getting sick on candy whether I’m trick-or-treating or handing it out.
It’s spring in Australia. On the pagan calendar, which is based on seasons not dates, it’s time for Beltaine, the spring festival, not Samhain, and spring is what the local Pagan community is celebrating. But Halloween, much like Christmas, is no longer exclusively about the season. It has a fixed calendar date, October 31. It feels strange to celebrate a holiday visibly marked by pumpkins, scarecrows, and other fall decorations during the spring. I guess we need to re-envision it for the Southern Hemisphere just as the Irish and Scottish adapted it to the New World and America adopted it in its own unique fashion.
I’m going to celebrate Halloween. I know I’ll be in a minority. Australians generally frown upon Halloween as having little relevance to Australian culture and as an unwanted American influence. Plus helicopter parents don’t like the idea of their kids knocking on the doors of strangers and filling up on lollies (candy), which is the best part in my opinion. But there is a slow and steady rise in Halloween celebrations and the local supermarkets have now begun to carry the big orange pumpkins that Americans know so well but are scarcely seen here. So, I’ll be purchasing one and invite others to as well and have them over for a fun afternoon of carving followed by dinner. On Halloween, I’ll place my jack-o’-lantern outside and have a bag of candy ready.
What will you be doing this Halloween?