Travelling around my usual haunts, I’ve noticed Halloween more this year than ever before. I’ve been feeling uneasy about this. Not because I’m scared of ghosts or spiders or anthropomorphized pumpkins, but because it’s so American. Or so I thought!
Before I did any research, this is what I was thinking: Halloween is an adopted tradition that has nothing to do with Aussies, that wastes food, that is garish and cheap and ugly, and that encourages bingeing on lollies. I know it’s an excuse for a party, and that’s very Australian, but we don’t really need an excuse! I’m wondering – dark eyed, bloodied, dead people walking around threatening neighbours with nasty deeds unless they hand over the goods – is that nice, is that ethical, is that what we should be encouraging in our children? And the gooey cobweb stuff like stretched cotton wool that’s encasing half the bushes in the suburb – is that good for the bushes or birds or bugs? I think not! It’s not good for the décor either. Whose house looks better with white or purple or orange threads engulfing the fence or hedge? And will it be removed in time for the Christmas decorations? I know, I’m a killjoy, right?
So, feeling a bit Grinch-like, I decided I better find out more about it. Maybe everyone else knows this, but I didn’t!
Halloween’s origins go back 2000 years to the Celts who lived in Ireland, the United Kingdom and France. They celebrated their new year on November 1 and believed that on the night before, the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead became blurred. The Celts gathered around huge bonfires, sacrificed crops and animals, wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and told fortunes.
Celtic, Roman and Christian traditions and beliefs merged over time. The festival was originally very limited in Protestant America. The first American celebrations were related to the harvest, and neighbours shared stories of the dead, told fortunes, danced and sang, in public parties. They also featured ghost stories and mischief making.
With the flood of Irish immigrants fleeing the Irish Potato Famine in the second half of the nineteenth century, Halloween was refreshed. Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money. This eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
In the late 1800s, there was a move to mold Halloween into a holiday to encourage community and neighbourly get-togethers. Superstitions and religious overtones were discouraged, and parties became secular. The event grew and now is the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
So, I’ve changed my mind! It’s not an all-American tradition, it’s a heathen Celtic tradition. It was originally about people feeling closer to dead relatives and hoping for a lenient winter and a good year. That’s all very nice! I don’t mind that the ghosts turned ghastly and witches disguised themselves as black cats. I don’t really mind the sweets. I used to be an addict myself. And anything that encourages people to go out onto the street and meet each other is good. Unless it’s neighbour-rage or the “tricks” turn terrible! But the commercialism, the tacky decorations that waste resources, produce rubbish and violate my sense of the aesthetic… Oh dear, I really am a wet-blanket, aren’t I?!
Disclaimer: My comments on the tacky decorations that… violate my sense of the aesthetic, do not apply to my friends’ houses that have been decorated with skill and tastefulness! Of course! You know who you are! 😉