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
Rather than celebrating death and fear, as is commonly believed, Halloween costumes were traditionally worn to blend in with, or frighten, any supernatural beings. This comes from the ancient belief that ghosts and spirits roamed the earth on this particular night, including those of a vengeful nature; perhaps somebody you had wronged when they were alive. Thus people dressed up as ghosts and demons and danced around a bonfire. A living person would recognise the spirit of a loved one and could then reveal themselves, but otherwise remain safe from the unwanted attention of darker forces.
To this day, Halloween costumes are traditionally modelled after supernatural figures, such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, skeletons, and witches, but in recent years they have also started including more contemporary characters, such as superheroes and cartoon personalities.
6. The Story behind Trick-or-Treating
The custom of trick-or-treating can be traced back to at least the 16th century, although back then it was known as 'souling'. It came from the belief that a soul could linger in torment in purgatory unless it was helped through prayer, and thus the poor of the town would go around asking for 'soul cakes' in return for prayers for the dead. This practice was eventually taken up by children, who would be offered food, drink, and money.
Today, children in costumes travel from house to house, asking for treats with the phrase "trick or treat". The "treat" is usually in the form of sweets, while the "trick" refers to a usually idle threat to perform mischief on the homeowner if no treat is given. In truth, pranks were very much part of Halloween festivities in the past, and there is evidence suggesting that the modern form of trick-or-treating was encouraged in the early 20th century as a safe alternative to more serious pranks that were getting out of hand.
7. Halloween around the World
Halloween may be especially big in America, but like nearly everything else, it has gone global, and the traditions of jack-o'-lanterns, costume-wearing, and trick-or-treating can be seen in many other parts of the world. In addition, many nations have their own equivalent of the celebration, as, throughout history, different civilisations have created their own festivals celebrating the afterlife, each with its own unique customs.
Despite many similarities to American traditions, the Irish still have unique customs, such as 'barmbrack', a traditional fruitcake with hidden coins and rings that can be used to predict the future of those who find them. Many Italian families make bean-shaped cakes called 'Beans of the Dead', while in Germany people hide knives so that they cannot be used by spirits to hurt the living.
Mexicans celebrate the 'Day of the Dead', where food and drink are offered to deceased relatives at specially constructed altars. The 'Festival of the Ancestors' is a Voodoo holiday celebrated in parts of Haiti, while the Awuru Odo Festival is held every two years in Nigeria to welcome the return of dearly departed friends and family members.
Similar events are also held in most Asian countries, such as P’chum Ben in Cambodia, Chuseok in South Korea, Teng Chieh in Hong Kong, and Obon in Japan, while in the Philippines children take part in Pangangaluluwâ, going door-to-door singing songs for the souls trapped in purgatory in exchange for sweets.
8. Halloween in Malta
Halloween began to gain popularity in Malta only in the last decade, mainly due to commercial Halloween parties. At times it has resulted in concerns by some that it is a feast that celebrates death, and goes against Christian tradition by trivialising, and even celebrating, paganism and the occult. Besides, Malta has its own traditions associated with this time of year; as with many Catholics around the world, the Maltese celebrate All Saints' Day on November 1st, followed by All Souls' Day the day after when people traditionally go to mass and visit the graves of their loved ones.
Despite this, the popularity of Halloween in Malta has been on the increase in the last few years, and it seems that it is only a matter of time before it is fully embraced into the local culture as with other foreign traditions. From trick-or-treating usually centred around the towns of Swieqi and Pembroke to haunted house experiences popping up all over the islands, the number of people getting involved is getting bigger and bigger.
Not sure what to do for this year’s Halloween week? Why not join one of our popular ghost tours? More information and bookings from our website.