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8 Fun Facts about Halloween

This is Halloween's weekend! Have you ever wondered what's behind this popular event?

Traditionally seen as an American holiday, this popular and lucrative festival is now celebrated almost everywhere around the world, and has also grown in popularity in Malta over the last few years, despite occasional controversy; most people see it as just a bit of harmless fun, while others claim that it is a celebration of the occult, due to the belief that Halloween is a pagan holiday that is not compatible with Christian beliefs.

So what are the facts? And how much do you really know about Halloween?

1. Links to Pagan Roots

The most popular theory about the origins of Halloween is that it derives from the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, celebrated on November 1st. The name of the festival literally means “summer’s end”, and the event marked the close of the harvest season and the beginning of the harsh, cold winter - a time associated with darkness and death.

Very little is known about this festival due to a lack of records, but it is believed that it consisted of a community event where preparations were made for the coming months, such as gathering resources of crops and animals. Samhain is also thought to have been a time of communing with the dead, as the Celts believed that on the previous night (October 31st), the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, and ghosts returned to earth, causing trouble and damaging crops. They thus had to be both appeased and kept away, with celebrations that likely included animal sacrifices, the building of bonfires, and dressing up in costumes.

After the Romans conquered the British Isles during the 1st century AD, the celebrations were combined with the Roman festivals of Feralia, commemorating the spirits of the dead, and Pomona, dedicated to the goddess of the harvest.

2. Christianisation of Halloween

In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV established May 13th as All Saints' Day. This date was actually the same one on which the Romans had celebrated the Lemuria, a festival of the dead, perhaps as part of a then-common trend to give pagan traditions a Christian narrative, in an attempt to ease the transition to a new religion. Something similar happened in the following century when Pope Gregory III moved the date of the feast to November 1st, thus Christianising Samhain.

The evening before All Saints' Day became a holy, or hallowed, eve, and thus Halloween. It was meant to be a night of vigil, prayer, and fasting in preparation for the next day, but by the end of the Middle Ages, the secular and the sacred had merged, with the birth of several traditions that are still an established part of Halloween as we know it today.

3. Introduction to the USA

Although the festival was imported into the new world by the early settlers of what would become the United States of America, Halloween was not widely celebrated there until the 19th century. People would gather to celebrate the harvest, tell each other's fortune, and sing traditional songs and hymns. But following the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, millions of new Irish immigrants brought their Celtic-rooted Halloween traditions with them.

In spite of this, the commercialisation of Halloween in the United States did not start until the 20th century. Today it is considered a secular holiday, known for trick-or-treating, costume parties, carving pumpkins, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories, and watching horror movies.

In many parts of the world, the Christian religious observances of All Hallows' Eve, including attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, remain popular, but with time it is becoming a more commercial and secular celebration that is fast overtaking more traditional events.

4. The Origin of the Jack-o'-Lantern

It is believed that the custom of making jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween began in Ireland. Turnips were hollowed-out to act as lanterns and were often carved with grotesque faces to scare away evil spirits that were believed to roam the earth on this particular night.

The jack-o'-lantern is also associated with the Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack, a clever drunk and con man who fooled the devil into banning him from hell but, because of his sinful life, could not enter heaven. After his death, he roamed the world carrying a small lantern made of a turnip with a red-hot ember from hell inside to light his way.

Shortly after their arrival in the US, the Irish traded the turnip for the pumpkin, a native crop that was much easier to carve. Today it is probably the most recognisable symbol of Halloween.

5. The Wearing of Costumes