As the nights get longer and the days chillier, the celebration of Halloween is fast approaching and the archetypal displays of bats, witches and ghosts, accompanied by fat pumpkins artistically carved into Jack O’Lanterns, are popping up here, there and everywhere.
I don’t remember Halloween being a big point of celebration when I was a child (going back a while now!) – instead the autumnal festivities centred around Bonfire Night on 5th November, with Halloween seen as being something celebrated more in the USA and beyond.
However, over the recent years, Halloween has arrived on our shores and seems to get bigger each year, with Trick or Treaters becoming a common sight.
It is only natural for our thoughts to turn to darkness, with the loss of summer, the progression into autumn and the coming onset of winter, with its short, cold days and long, dark nights. Maybe Halloween is intended as a lifting of the spirits (pun intended!)
In fact, Halloween is a very big deal in the US – it is second only to Christmas in terms of population spend ($8billion at last count!) and although in the UK we might only spend a mere £400million in comparison, Halloween is big business now on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whatever you think about Halloween, what can’t be denied is the dark and sinister image that it has, leading some to shun it altogether – but does the festive deserve its devilish reputation?
For starters, let’s look at how it got its name – Halloween proceeds All Saints Day and in fact a Hallow means a saint. Therefore, Halloween comes from All Hallows (Saints) Eve and has morphed into Halloween – nothing sinister there then.
Most agree that Halloween is believed to have originated from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (for those not fluent in the Celtic tongue, this is pronounced Sow Win). It was originally the celebration of the end of the harvest and the end of summertime and beginning of winter – the midpoint between the autumn and winter equinoxes. Bonfires were lit and people dressed in costumes and visited their neighbours, singing and reciting verses and being rewarded with food for their efforts – the beginnings of the trick or treating we know today.
So far, we haven’t come across anything too menacing; however, it can’t be denied that part of Samhain was the belief that the veil between the living world and the world of the dead was thinnest on that night and that it was easier for those from one world to pass to the other – hence lighting of fires and dressing in costumes to appease the spirits or at least keep them at bay.
In a similar vein, the Day of the Dead – a Spanish/Mexican festival also falls over Halloween – despite sounding morbid, it seems this is primarily a celebration of those we have lost both personal and famous– and is a time for recognition and remembrance.
Let’s ponder on the witch. Witches have taken on a sexy, new guise with modern books and TV shows doing wonders for their image – very different from the witches of the past. Did you know that the original witch was actually an expert herbalist, who had extensive knowledge of the healing qualities of native plants and who helped their community by supplying remedies, attending the sick and even acting as midwives? They often carried brooms with them to ensure the homes of the sick were clean and of course they used large cooking pots (cauldrons) in which to create their herbal medications. The negative image of the old, cackling hag with a wart on her nose was likely just a nasty rumour put about by those who resented knowledgeable women being prominent in their society – sound familiar?!
Then there’s the ghost. Apparently 30-40% of us believe in ghosts; of course, we all have our own personal perspectives, with some absolutely convinced they exist, whilst others are totally sure they don’t. Science has some suggestions for us on the matter. For instance, it has been found that certain moulds and fungal spores can produce an hallucinogenic state – maybe an explanation for why old, “haunted” houses seem to be a favourite for spectral apparitions. There’s also the discovery that the convergence of electromagnetic fields that occur in certain locations can induce feelings of dread or eeriness and it has been found these locations are common places for reported spooky phenomenon; likewise, infrasound (very low frequency noise) can have a similar effect. So, it’s possible we may be able to explain at least some of these mysterious occurrences.
How about bats? They’re generally not regarded as cute and cuddly – think of the old wives’ tales warning of them getting stuck in your hair and of course, Dracula and his vampire pals don’t enhance their image. The truth is that bats are wonderful creatures – they help to pollinate plants and distribute their seeds; they help control pests (anyone who suffers from an itchy mosi bite should celebrate the sight of bats acrobatically swopping about the dusk skies collecting the chomping pests) – yes bats eat blood suckers rather than suck blood themselves (well in this country anyway).
There’s also plenty of fun to be had at Halloween – aside from the obvious trick or treating, there’s a chance of dressing up in crazy costumes, partaking of a Halloween cocktail or two, whilst munching on potato cakes and toffee apples; or how about a game of apple bobbing or fulfilling your artistic bent by carving out an impressive pumpkin Jack O’Lantern?
Maybe we enjoy the thrill of a scare or two and are happy to see Halloween as a Spooktacular celebration, but it does have a lighter side too.
Trick or Treat?