Halloween is a night surrounded by mythical stories of mystery, magic and superstition. It has evolved from a rather scary celebration to a fun-filled celebration in the present-day world.
Though it’s a western world culture, it’s making its place in our country too. Different meeting places and restaurants have already started decorating Halloween-related things. Perhaps, in future, it will become a household celebration in Bangladesh too. Because of the lack of proper entertainment places, we are getting more involved in different cultural celebrations that occur around the globe.
Moreover, Bangladeshis around the world are also getting prepared with carved pumpkins, candies and costumes for Halloween. Many public groups have started celebrating by organising ghost night story events.
Halloween is observed on Oct 31 the evening before the Christian holy All Saints’ Day on Nov 1 and All Souls' Day on Nov 2. The English name Halloween traces back to mediaeval Christianity. The word comes from two words: Hallow meaning holy person referring to the saints celebrated on All Saints' Day. The word een is a shortened form of the word evening before. Thus Halloween means the night before All Saints' Day. It’s also called Hallowmas or All Hallows' Day.
The origin of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain, which celebrated the end of the harvest season.
Celts believed that during Samhain, the barrier between the physical and spiritual world became penetrable. They made offerings of animals and humans to please the spirits and departed ancestors who infiltrated the human world on that day. They also disguised themselves in animal skins and masks as animals and demons so that fairies or souls wouldn’t be enticed to abduct them. These led to witches, fairies, and devils being linked with Halloween. It was also related to marriage, health, and death.
Halloween celebrations were very limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant beliefs. Slowly the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups and the American Indians merged. In the second half of the 19th century, millions of Irish immigrants fleeing to America helped popularise Halloween nationally.
Because of the violence and vandalism that emerged with Halloween pranks, some cities considered banning them. Children’s pranks sometimes became quite destructive with setting fires, breaking glasses, tripping pedestrians and throwing flour or ashes on people on the streets. In 1984 more than 800 fires were set across the city of Detroit in a three-night arson spree.
Following these incidents, newspapers and community leaders urged parents to avoid scary and bizarre ideas about Halloween. Slowly parties focusing on harmless games, food, candy, storytelling and festive costumes were introduced.
Through the ages Christian influences, European myth and American commercialisation merged and transformed the ancient tradition into the present-day popular holiday of Halloween.
Halloween has become America’s second-largest commercial holiday with an estimated $6 billion annual expenditure during Halloween. Christmas is first on the list.
There are a number of fun activities associated with Halloween. It’s celebrated with trick-or-treating, spooky costumes, jack-o-lanterns and scary movies which are quite different from the original Halloween tradition.
The stories about these practices are quite interesting.
During the Celtic celebrations of Samhain, it was thought that on that day demons and evil spirits from the underworld penetrated the world to cast evil spells on humans and animals. To appease these souls proper treat (food) was served on tables. This custom is thought to be the predecessor of trick or treat. On this dark night, Druid priests made animal and human sacrifices to please theLord of the Dead. They would rip their hearts out and use their blood for religious rituals. They used other body parts to forecast the future. The remains were then burned in bone fires from which we get the popular bonfire.
During 1000 AD, poor people visited the homes of rich families and received pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the salvation of the souls of the dead relatives of the owners of the homes. Later, children started going from house to house for a treat of candies and chocolates. Trick-or-treating gained popularity in the 1950s, and Halloween became a festive event.
It’s estimated that one-quarter of all the candy sold annually in the US is purchased for Halloween.
Do you know how pumpkin carvings with ghoulish faces, illuminated with candles became a custom for Halloween?
It originated from an Irish folktale.
According to the story, a man nicknamed Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him and convinced the Devil to turn it into a coin to buy their drinks. Once the Devil became a coin, Jack put the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross preventing the Devil from changing into his original form. Jack freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and when Jack died he would not claim his soul. The following year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree and carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down. Jack made the Devil promise not to bother him for ten more years.
When Jack died, it’s said that God didn’t allow him into heaven. The Devil kept his word and didn’t allow Jack’s soul into hell. He gave Jack a burning coal to light his way at night. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth since then. He was referred to as Jack O’ Lantern. People began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them on windows or near doors to frighten him and other evil spirits away. Irish Immigrants brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them to America. They then started carving pumpkins (abundant in America) and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities.
There are many other rituals which are getting lost with time.
Bobbing for apples on All Hallows' Eve was a fortune-telling game for matchmaking opportunities in the 19th century. Women used to throw apple peels over their shoulders in the tub, hoping to see their future husband’s initials in the shapes where they fell.
Another creepy ritual was to stand in a dark room with a candle in front of a mirror which made their future husband's face appear in the glass.
In Scotland, fortune-tellers asked eligible young women to name a hazelnut for each of their suitors and then tossed the nuts in the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping represented the girl’s future husband.
Another popular ritual was mirror-gazing in which people hoped to have a glimpse of their future in the mirror.
Halloween costumes also evolved. In contrast to the garbs of saints, pranksters started to dress up in scary, spooky costumes to scare unsuspecting neighbours.
Black cat costumes are particularly popular on Halloween, as in the Middle Ages, it was believed that witches transformed into black cats to conceal themselves. Even now superstitious people avoid crossing paths with black cats to avoid bad luck.
Bats are a Halloween Symbol too. Various folklores have it that bats are symbols of death or doom.
Halloween has sparked so much interest that endless movies have been made. Who can forget the bone-chilling horror film Halloween of 1978 and countless series following it and movies like Scream, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street?
Halloween is a popular celebration in many parts of the globe today.
Let’s get our weirdest costumes, gossip about ghosts and enjoy Halloween night with lots of sweet candy and scary movies.
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]
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