Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated on 31 October. It has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Christian holy day of All Saints. It is largely a secular celebration but some have expressed strong feelings about perceived religious overtones.
The day is often associated with the colours black and orange, ad is strongly associated with symbols like jack-o-lantern. Halloween activities include trick-or-treating, wearing costumes and attending costume parties, ghost tours, bonfires, visiting haunted attractions, pranks, telling scary stories and watching horror films.
Halloween has origins in the ancient festival known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which is derived from Old Irish and means roughly 'summers end'. This was a Gaelic festival celebrated mainly in Ireland and Scotland, though the ancient Britons held similar festivals. The celebration has some elements of a festival of the dead. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the next became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. It is believed the wearing of costumes and masks was to ward off evil spirits. Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.
The term Halloween, originally spelled Hallowe'en, is shortened from All Hallows' Even - e'en is a shortening of even, which is a shortening of evening. This is ultimately derived from Old English but is now known a 'Eve of' All Saints' Day, which is 1 November. In the 800s, the Church measured the day as starting at sunset, in accordance with the Florentine calendar. Although All Saint's Day is now considered to occur one day after Halloween, the two holidays were once celebrated on the same day.
On All Hallows' eve, many Irish and Scottish people have traditionally placed a candle on their western window sill to honour the departed. Other traditions include carving lanterns from turnips or rutabagas, sometimes with faces on them, as is done in the modern tradition of carving pumpkins.
The name jack-o'-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard drinking old farmer. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into the tree trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack,
condemning him to forever wander the earth at night with the only light he had: a candle inside of a hollowed turnip. The carving of pumpkins is associated with Halloween in North America where pumpkins are both readily available and much larger - making them easier to carve than turnips.
The imagery surrounding Halloween is largely a mix of the Halloween season, works of Gothic and horror literature, in particular Frankenstein and Dracula, and tends to involve death, evil, the occult, magic, or mythical monsters. Traditional characters include the Devil, the Grim Reaper,, ghosts, ghouls, demons, witches, goblins, vampires, werewolves, zombies, skeletons, black cats, spiders, bats and crows.
Trick-or-treating is a customary celebration for children on Halloween. Halloween costumes are traditionally those of monsters such as ghosts, witches and devils. They are said to be used to scare off demons.There are several games traditionally associated with Halloween parties. One common game is dunking or apple bobbin. Another common game involves hanging up treacle or syrup-coated scones by strings, these have to be eaten without using hands, while they remain attached to the string. An Irish and Scottish tradition is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name. Unmarried women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror.
Pictured right: In this Halloween greeting card from 1904, divination is depicted: the young woman looking into a mirror in a darkened room hopes to catch a glimpse of the face of her future husband.