Halloween’s origins

by Kaija on Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Posted in: inspiration, Runfreakrun, yay
4 Comments on Halloween’s origins

Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)
The Witches’ Sabbath

I’m a person who’s never properly celebrated Halloween. The whole festivity tends to slide under the radar in Europe, or at least it did in Finland, where I grew up. Rather, for me Halloween is a funny pop cultural phenomena that I have only experienced through movies and stories from other people.

Tim Burton with Nightmare Before Christmas characters.

It looks like one of the most fun celebrations of the year though. It’s based on monsters, witches, bats and pumpkin lanterns! But it’s neither been a tradition for me, in which case I wouldn’t question my reasons for celebrating, nor do I know the origins of the tradition, in which case I could understand why I should be celebrating. So I’ve never participated. This year I wanted to rectify the latter.

To my delight, history of Halloween is full of stuff that I find appealing. It’s like reading a fairy tale. Or a book of fairy tales. In short, Halloween comes from an ancient tradition, and it’s origins can be found in Gaelic Ireland, around 2000 years ago. The festival was then called Samhain, roughly translated it means “summer’s end” and it marked the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter. Animals were brought down from their summer pastures for the winter and spirits and gods were given offerings of food and drink for good luck.

The eve of Samhain was believed to be a liminal time, the moment when division between this world and the otherworld was at it’s thinnest, allowing spirits and the dead to pass through and walk among the living. Bonfires were lit to protect and cleanse, as well as in symbolic imitation of the sun, to hold back the approaching darkness of winter. Costumes and masks were worn for safety reasons, to trick harmful spirits into thinking you were one of them. Other precautions against mischievous spirits included simply staying indoors, or if forced to venture into the darkness people turned their clothing inside-out or carried iron or salt to keep them at bay.

Samhain also appears in many Irish folk tales as a moment when important events take place. These seem to be mostly invasions, kings making child sacrifices, magic, and deaths. Loads of deaths.

I found some quite disturbing vintage Halloween photos. I love them!

Mutants and monstrosities. An awesome bunch.

Best hag costume I’ve seen so far. And does the creature in the middle have sunglasses on?

The tradition of jack-o’-lanterns seems to be a bit more recent tradition. It has been tracked to the 19th century, when trick or treaters carved out turnips to act as lanterns and the carved faces to represent evil spirits and to protect against them while walking outside.

In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of the “All Saints” or the “All Hallows” day to November 1st and over time customs of Samhain and All Hallows mixed and merged, taking it closer to modern Halloween.

The tradition of Halloween finally appeared in America in the 19th century, when the Irish emigrated there in huge numbers. In the late 19th century an effort was made to mold Halloween traditions more into neighbourly get togethers, and Halloween parties became the most common way to celebrate the holiday. At the beginning of 20th century Halloween had already lost most of it’s superstitious overtones to family friendly activities.

Creepy, creepy, creepy.
It’s the vacant eyes…

For some reason these are my favourite costumes of the whole collection. They’re so terribly sad looking…

It’s not all doom and gloom :)

All in all I found some of the most capturing history, myths and holiday traditions in Halloween. And I was just barely scraping the surface of the information that’s out there to be found. Lastly, after the info-dump that I bestowed on my brain, I have made my final verdict: it’s high time for me to take up some Halloween customs.

I think I’ll start with a batch of skull cookies.