Halloween 2011 is set to break all records

The rise and rise of Halloween as a popular festival in the US and, more recently, the UK has surpassed all predictions. Is it just commerce, or something deeper?

Tonight records will be broken. More people will dress up, more sweets will be handed out, more pumpkins will be turned into ghostly lanterns than ever before in human history.

How do we know? In the US, Halloween spending has doubled in seven years and, despite economic gloom, will reach a record of $6.86 billion (£4.25 billion) this year, according to the American National Retail Federation. Over 40 million American children will dress up as monsters, vampires, witches, werewolves or ghosts tonight.

In the UK, Halloween statistics have been showing a sharp rise in participation and spending for the past ten years, with Halloween overtaking Mother's Day and Valentine's Day last year. In 2001 British consumers spent a lowly £12 million on spooky festivities. This year they will spend around £280 million – more than 20 times as much.

And although the US and UK lead the way, many other countries have their own versions of Halloween festivities such as China's Teng Chieh (when lanterns are lit to help the spirits of the dead find their way as they roam the earth) or Japan's Obon Festival (when the dead are believed to return to their birthplaces).

And Halloween itself? The word comes from 'hallow' which means holy. When All Saints' Day was created in the eighth century to celebrate all the Christian saints and martyrs, the night before became known as 'All Hallow's Evening' or 'Halloween'.

Borrowing an idea from a far older Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-inn) when people would light bonfires and wear masks to try and frighten away evil spirits, Halloween became the night when the souls of the dead were supposed to climb out of their graves and roam the streets.

Business or belief?

What's behind Halloween's popularity? Part of the reason is business. People love a party. Retailers in many countries depend upon festivities such as Halloween for their profits. For example, America's biggest grocer, Walmart, drove British interest with huge Halloween promotions over the past decade in Walmart-owned Asda.

But psychologists also point to a powerful mythical appeal. Just as Christmas has its birth story, and Easter has its resurrection story, so Halloween has its roots in a deep fascination with death. Even in the midst of the age of technology, over one in three Americans believes in ghosts. Humanity may have embraced materialism but we also need to express our instinct that a powerful, invisible, non-material world might be real. Without this instinct, they say, no amount of sales promotion could have created such a successful modern festival.

You Decide

  1. Might it be possible to communicate with the dead?
  2. Ghost or witch - if you had to meet one on a lonely path, which would you choose?

Activities

  1. Write the title and plot outline of a ghost story. Present your idea to the class and get votes for the scariest idea.
  2. Imagine you are a real ghost on the streets tonight, surrounded by small children trick-or-treating. Write a diary entry describing your adventures and feelings.

Some People Say...

“Ghosts are imagined, not real.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So Halloween has pagan roots?
Yes. In Anglo-Saxon times, this was New Year's Eve and the end of the year. Modern day witches, or members of Wicca (who claim not to worship the devil) keep it as one of their most important days. And modern day Satanists (who openly worship the devil) regard it as the most important day of the year.
What about Christmas?
The early Christian church leaders were very good at absorbing older pagan festivals into their new religion. Many elements of Christmas seem to come from older rituals: the date December 25th is believed to be the date of a Babylonian festival to mark the birth of the son of the goddess Isis; 'yule' is a Babylonian name for 'little child'; the fir tree was used during Roman times in winter solstice celebrations – and so on.

Word Watch

Ghost
The the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear as a realistic, life-like shape or as a just a wispy apparition (or practically anything in between). People who believe in ghosts often say they are spirits who have not fully come to terms with their own death and need to be helped to accept that they have moved into the next world.
Celtic
Refers to the Celts, who were a group of tribes speaking the same language that flourished across Europe from about 800 BC to 1000 AD before becoming a minority living mainly in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Highly cultured, they were generally polytheists, worshipping many gods and spirits.
Mythical
Relating to myths, which are the great legends and stories that shape civilisation and get passed down from generation to generation. The ancient Greek myths were stories of their gods. Myths usually contain much truth but do not have to be literally true which is why the word is often used today to mean 'lie' – which is confusing since the older use of the word implies deep truth.

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