Halloween, as we celebrate it today, has its roots in ancient festivals from around the world. Ireland and Mexico are two example of such celebrations.
The common perception of Halloween is pumpkins, trick or treat and scary costumes. A lot of what we believe to be Halloween traditions come from North America. By world history standards, they are very modern. Halloween is a celebration of all things ghoulish, ghostly and mysterious. However, the beliefs and celebrations extend far into history. Our modern Halloween customs have roots in celebrations around the world.
Halloween occurs in the northern hemisphere as the days get noticeably shorter and farmers have completed their harvest for the year. Leaves begin to fall from the tress, the temperature gets cooler and plants begin to die. It is noticeable that nature is beginning to hibernate, and the world is slowing down. In times when humans were more in-tune with the world around them, and the environments where they lived, such changes were marked and celebrated. Just as Easter celebrates the arrival of spring and new life, Halloween takes note of death and the otherworld.
Historians believe that Halloween is one of the oldest festivals still celebrated today. Its traditions stretch back into pre-Christian times. Many of the traditions that we know today originated from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Celebrated in Ireland and Scotland, it marked the arrival of winter. It is still a celebration there today. Bonfires are lit to illuminate the night, in an attempt to ward off the encroaching darkness. Children play games such as ‘apple bobbing’. People eat a special type of fruitcake known as barmbrack. In this cake are hidden objects, such as rings and coins, which are believed to foretell future wealth or marriage. The modern pumpkin carvings that we know today originated from carving a face in a turnip. When immigrants arrived in North America, they changed the tradition to a pumpkin.
Mexico is famous for its celebration of the dead. Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is celebrated on November 2nd. It celebrates the lives of relatives who have passed away. Some believe that the gates of heaven have been opened and the souls of the deceased can return to earth. Homes are decorated with ornate skulls and people dress up. A special type of bread called pan de muerto, along with other foods and drinks are placed on an altar in homes. This is for souls returning from the other side. Traditions dictate that the dead can return from heaven to join in the festivities. Mariachi bands play in the streets to keep them entertained as this world and the otherworld is united for the day.
Remembering the Dead
November 1st is All Saints Day in the Catholic Church. An older name for the feast day is All Hallows Day, where the name Halloween originates from. Throughout the Catholic world, people take time to remember those who have died and make a special effort to visit the graves of loved ones.
Modern Halloween has been commercialised to an extent that it is now about selling costumes and hosting parties. However, it is important to remember a time, not that long ago, when society was more in touch with nature. The fall of the year reminded people of their own mortality, and that their lives were linked to the passage of time and changing of the seasons. It was also a time to give thanks for the harvest of food that nature produced. Just as children today gorge themselves on chocolate, generations past enjoyed the fruits of autumn.
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