Horrible History – Halloween’s Ghoulish Past


As the leaves begin to fall off the trees and the world develops that wonderful rosy glow, so begins autumn, along with the preparation for darker nights and wrapping up in as many layers as you can manage to brave the English cold.

What this image is, is a picture.

Luckily for us, between summer and Christmas falls the spookiest of holidays, Halloween. For kids everywhere, this means one night of free chocolate and egging houses; for us big kids, it means dressing up in ridiculous and/or sexy costumes to go out drinking. However, we seem to forget where these holidays came from – are they a media stunt to encourage us to spend far too much money on treats and costumes, or is there a real meaning behind Halloween?

Unsurprisingly, as with most traditional holidays, Halloween has its own religious context which dates right back to ancient times and, somewhat out-dated, beliefs. Halloween has its roots in an old pagan festival known as Samhain, which was once deemed to be an important day on the pagan calendar, as it marks the Feast of the Dead. The idea of the Feast of the Dead was to make all the neighbourhood ghouls come a-visiting and to celebrate life.

In these times, old age was not something to give your seat up to on the bus; it was a gift of wisdom and a part of life as necessary and accepted as the birth of a new baby. It was believed to be a mystical, sacred time of the year – the dead could walk the earth again and share secrets of the afterlife and the future (which could be why so many people are fond of doing ghost walks and performing séances on Halloween). For an unlucky few, this event meant the loss of their lives, as pagans engaged in gory rituals to offer living sacrifices and appease the gods and any malicious spirits. In pagan life, occasionally you’ve got to take one for the team.

On a lighter note, the concept of trick or treating in also believed to originate in ancient Celtic tradition. According to chroniclers, in the 19th century people would bake sweet treats and on Halloween night, people would visit their neighbours begging for what was known as ‘soul cakes’. The more cakes they received the more prayers they had to say in memory of the dead, as well as consuming far too many calories.

A similar tradition was noted in ancient Ireland – peasants would go door-to-door begging for bread, money, eggs and any other edible treats they could scrape together, in order to feed themselves over the winter. This could all be down to the fact that Samhain is derived from a Gaelic word meaning ‘end of summer’. Therefore, another aim of this day of the year was to celebrate the end of harvest, the death of summer, and alert people that it was time to squirrel together their nuts and prepare for winter. To get into the spirit of this, many people in the 21st century, from children to adults, enjoy going door to door collecting chocolate from people they barely know and stocking up on as much alcohol as their Sainsbury’s bag can. Which is basically the same thing, right?

The introduction of what we now know as “Halloween” did not happen until almost centuries after Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem. It was employed as a conversion tactic by Christians to appeal to the pagans, as Samhain tied in neatly with the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls day, which were moved into early November. The BBC religion page tells us that “it is widely accepted that the early church missionaries chose to hold a festival at this time of year in order to absorb existing native Pagan practices into Christianity, thereby smoothing the conversion process”. By combining old traditions with a new faith, it encouraged people to embrace the new rule and the latest form of worship. Halloween gave good Christians one night to thoroughly scare themselves half to death, and then spend the next few days repenting and worshipping the lives of saints.

The difference between the pagan festival and the Christianised Halloween is that the pagans embrace the ideas of death, rather than fearing it. In the Christianised version of Halloween, a common belief was that Halloween night was a special night in which the boundaries between life and death became blurred, and it was possible for evil spirits to break free and roam the earth for a while.

These ideas of the dead haunting the mortal world drove all seemingly-logical people into extinguishing all their lights and wearing masks and disguises, in order to ward off the dead and protect themselves from being possessed. The idea was to blend in as well as possible with any roaming ghosts, so that evil souls would pass by quietly. This could be why in modern times many people aim to look like something that just crawled out of a graveyard using enormous amounts of eyeliner. This has repercussions for the modern age: those of you who choose to dress up like cute bunnies and sexy pirates would be the first to be victimised by a passing evil spirit, and the last thing you want on Halloween is to be mugged by the un-dead as you innocently stumble past a cemetery.

Overall, with the majority of people being so darn unreligious these days, the true meaning of Halloween has been overwritten by an array of beautiful, colourful, gothic outfits and the promise of free confectionary. In this modern age, we believe more in facts and figures, although I’m pretty sure my housemates and I aren’t the only ones who enjoy watching trashy horror films and screaming at the idea of ghosts dragging you down the stairs. It might be important to understand out past, but why not embrace our modern Halloween? Because let’s be honest, there are only two religious holidays which allow you to stuff your face with chocolate and other tooth-rotting goodies completely guilt-free.

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