Traditions of Hallowe’en


Take a walk back in time away from the hype of Hallowe’en to discover its origins and traditions. This festival is not traditionally a part of Australia’s culture, so I was fascinated to discover more about it whilst on our trip to North America this time last year.
My only other connection occurred when we lived in Edinburgh, a decade ago, and I gave some trick or treaters fruit, having run out of lollies (candy). They proceeded to show their displeasure by pelting it at the house! I won’t do that again!
In the early part of the nineteenth century after the blight of famine, Irish immigrants brought to their new homeland in America a rich bevy of tradition and belief. One of these was Hallowe’en – thought to be based on the pre-Christian 2000 year old Celtic tradition of Samhain (pronounced Sah-win), Gaelic for summer’s end. Presumably, its roots lie in a celebratory harvest festival. These formed important markers of transition and survival in rural calendars. Traditionally, villagers would carve turnips and place a lump of peat inside to scare off the ghost of Jack, a drunken farmer who had lost his way ‘twixt heaven and hell.
Pranks were played and folks would dress up in the old ‘mummers’ tradition – ‘guising’ – to ward off the spirits of the dead. Sometimes divination games were played such as bobbing for apples in a water-filled pail: the first to pick out the fruit would be the first to marry. Maidens would also peel an apple in a continuous strip and throw the peel over their shoulder; as it fell, it would shape the first letter of a future husband’s name
These supernatural ventures, meant as harmless fun and recreation after months of hard work in the fields, coincided with the Christian celebration of All Hallows Eve.
In medieval times, another custom existed of ‘souling’ where poor people would knock on doors asking for food. Prayers for the dead were offered in exchange.
Historically, the Catholic church often layered a Pagan festival with their own. And this seems to have brought about the amalgamation of traditions into the Hallowe’en of today.
In the case of the tribal Celts, their beliefs lacked the sinister Christian belief in Satan, but historians believe they hoped their ancient burial mounds might open to reveal the secrets of the underworld on that special eve.
During our trip, we saw pumpkins everywhere – gorgeous golden globes lying in the fields or piled up in tubs outside shops, or gracing homes and restaurants with amazing displays. Their prevalence in inner city food markets was a joy as well, bringing richness and colour to the streets. When the Irish emigrants found these wonderful vegetables in such abundance, they must have been well-pleased.
Now the carving of Jack O’lanterns has become an art form in its own right. And the Hallowe’en display at New York’s Chelsea Market proved a prime example. Perhaps the blend of these ancient (and new) traditions add just the right note of light-hearted fun and humour to lighten the challenges and transitions of our own twenty first century lives.