Covid-19 has done little to thwart Halloween plans in the US, with 148 million planning to celebrate the holiday – that’s more than the whole population of Russia. What makes it so popular?
What is Halloween?
It is a holiday celebrated each year on 31 October. Millions of people enjoy dressing up, decorating their homes, throwing parties and trick or treating.
In recent years, Halloween has grown from a favourite US holiday to one enjoyed around the world. A record number of people in the UK will carve a pumpkin this year, while numbers are growing elsewhere in Europe, as well as in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
How did it all begin?
The holiday we know so well today started with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The night of Samhain was considered a mystical moment between the end of the year and the start of a new one, when the ghosts of the dead returned. Villagers gathered and lit huge bonfires to ward off spirits.
As the influence of the Catholic church grew in Europe, it frowned on pagan rituals like Samhain. It decided to merge pagan holidays with Christian ones in an attempt to convert more people. All Saint’s Day was created as a day to remember martyrs and saints. It was celebrated on 1 November and known as Hallowmas. The night before was All Hallows’ Eve. Gradually, that name turned into “Halloween”.
How has Halloween changed?
After being introduced as a Christian festival, Halloween became popular in Europe. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to the United States in the 1840s. Youths would ask for treats from homeowners in exchange for not playing tricks on them. By the 1930s, the “tricks” were dangerous and often criminal. They involved hurling tomatoes at windows, writing on doors and even removing gates from their hinges and hiding them.
Today, trick or treating remains a favourite activity – although “tricks” are hardly necessary because sweets and chocolate are given out so readily.
Do all countries celebrate it?
Halloween is widely celebrated in Ireland, Canada and the United States, as well as in Japan where there are usually huge street parties to mark the occasion.
Versions of the holiday are celebrated elsewhere, too. In Mexico and other Latin American countries Día de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – honours deceased loved ones and ancestors. In China, the Hungry Ghost Festival takes place earlier in the year, in the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It is a time when the ghosts of the departed are said to walk the Earth.
Any interesting traditions?
Ireland is responsible for many of the better-known Halloween traditions such as jack-o’-lanterns. But one that has never caught on worldwide is barmbrack, a fruit cake with presents baked inside it. Each has a different meaning: a ring announces romance, a coin means wealth while a thimble predicts that you are doomed never to marry.
Other traditions are related to All Saints Day. Austrians leave bread and water out at night for returning souls, while Germans hide all their knives away so that the spirits cannot hurt themselves. In countries celebrating Día de Muertos, families decorate graves with flowers and delicious snacks for the ghosts of their departed loved ones to enjoy.
What makes it so popular?
Some say, because it gives everybody – young and old – a chance to dress up and forget themselves. In 2005, just over half of adults in the US celebrated the holiday. By 2018, that number had grown to 80%. Retailers also report that, while the Halloween economy was once driven by sweets, alcohol has become just as important.
Others suggest that it goes deeper than consumerism. In a society where death is mostly absent, Halloween is the one time in the year when we think about death, remember the dead and celebrate them.
- Is Halloween an enjoyable but meaningless holiday – or an important time to think about death?
- Research another unusual tradition derived from Halloween. Prepare a short presentation about it for the rest of your class.
- The Celts were the pre-Roman inhabitants of Western Europe, particularly connected to Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
- A Gaelic word pronounced “sow-wain”. A number of Celtic neopagans still celebrate the harvest festival today, although in the Southern Hemisphere, Samhain is marked on 1 May.
- A pagan is a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. The word comes from a Latin word meaning “villager”.
- Someone who is killed because of their religious beliefs.
- “Hallow” meant something sacred, while “mas” referred to a religious service, or mass. Christmas refers to the mass of Christ. In other words, Hallowmas is a service for sacred things or people – saints.
- To do something willingly, without hesitation.
- Originally, people in Ireland cut faces into potatoes and turnips. When they discovered the native pumpkins on arrival in the United States, they found them far easier to carve.
- Día de Muertos
- Also a mixture of religious and pagan festivals, The Day of the Dead brings together traditions from Catholic Spain as well as Aztec harvest celebrations.