The rise and rise of Halloween

by Heike O’Sullivan

It’s really only been since the Noughties, that much of Western Europe has been overrun by the phenomenon that is Halloween. In its Americanised, colourful, noisy and often gaudy version, Halloween has become such a major event in our annual calendar that it is only overtaken in its commercialism by Christmas.
Some European countries are so bemused by the popular success of Halloween that the Austrian University of Graz, for instance, undertook a research project led by prominent folklorist Editha Hörander. Cultural anthropologists studied the origins, customs, economics and – yes – culinary developments associated with the celebrations we now call Halloween.
Research showed that seasonal elements of the ancient farming year combined with Celtic spiritualism and pre-existing social traditions, before being exported to America by Irish and Scottish settlers in the 19th century, where the festival took on a life of its own and became the Halloween we know today. Halloween then found its way back across the Atlantic with all its marketing including sweets, costumes and masks, parties and parades.
“European teenagers quickly took to Halloween,” states Ms Hörander, “as it bought into the current pop culture of fun and events, and a youthful fondness of horror and mayhem. Shopkeepers are only too happy to facilitate them, as the timing of Halloween fills the consumer void between back-to-school and Christmas.”
Due to all the fun and games, we often forget that Halloween’s ‘real’ name is All Hallows’ Eve, the day being part of Allhallowtide, and that it is an entirely respectable and respectful Christian feast day. Ironically, the original Christian observation of Halloween was through prayers and fasting (instead of partying and scoffing sweets) in preparation for All Hallows or All Saints Day on 1st November. Allhallowtide concludes with All Souls’ Day on 2nd November.
So how did we get from fasting and remembering our saints and our dead, to candy-chewing parades of ghosts and ghouls (and the odd Disney princess), led by headless horsemen? Well, I guess, the Celts are mostly to blame, and it’s probably a bit of a chicken and egg question because long before Christianity came to Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Celts celebrated Samhain (on 1st November) as marking the arrival of the darker half of the year and a time when the veil between this world and the next can be worryingly thin.
During the night of Samhain, Celts would place a hollowed-out turnip lantern with carved, scary face on their windowsills or doorsteps, to keep prowling spirits away from their homes. Halloween ‘Guisers’ would walk the streets in costumes, hoping to trick evil spirits and keep them at bay. Because Samhain coincides with the end of harvest, and the letting go and paying of harvest workers, boisterous intoxication would often result in scarily dressed Guisers carrying horrific looking turnip lanterns, roaming the streets and scaring passers-by. Transplant these traditions to America, and you get carved pumpkin lanterns and Halloween parades.
A different slant on the ‘Guiser’ tradition might explain the custom of ‘Trick or Treat’: ‘Mummers’ or ‘Guisers’ would go from house to house, offering music, songs or poetry in exchange for food or money. If the householders were not welcoming, the Guisers would threaten mischief on them.
Halloween bonfires have been burning for millennia, though not originally for the purpose of roasting marshmallows. The onset of winter saw cattle and sheep brought down from their summer pastures, to be wintered in the safety of the villages. To protect farm and home from evil spirits, animals were driven in between two bonfires, or driven through the dying embers of a bonfire, before entering their winter accommodation, thereby purifying and cleansing their spirits. May 1st (Bealtaine) saw an identical tradition, this being the Celtic start of summer and – possibly – the grazing season.
Many people associate Halloween with certain culinary traditions. When Americans ditched the carving of hard turnips for their native, much softer pumpkin, it would have been a shame to let all that lovely pumpkin flesh go to waste and pumpkin pies, bread, soup etc were born. Here in Ireland, barmbrack (or Halloween brack) is still a bestseller. Baking various objects into the light fruit cake resulted in a fortune-telling game at a time of year when people tend to be more superstitious than usual. Nowadays, the only object commercially included in the brack is a toy ring. The homely dish of Colcannon was used for similar purposes on Halloween, with small coins hidden in midst the mash and greens.
The opinions on celebrating Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, are divided. For some, it’s all about the best costume, the fanciest parade or the biggest tummy ache. For others, it’s a time for quiet reflection and remembering lost loved ones. In Kenmare, the day is used for yet another fantastic community get-together, an occasion for fun and laughter (and probably the odd terrified scream). Do join in the week-long fun starting on the evening of October 31st, and make sure to dress up and join the parade on November 5th. Enjoy!