I’ve got one good thing to say about Hallowe’en: tomorrow the over-commercialised, scaremongering tat-fest will be dead and buried for another year – well about 10 months. Did you know that Americans spend an estimated $6 BILLION annually on Hallowe’en, making it the second largest commercial holiday of the year? (Guess what’s No 1?)
Never mind America, just down the road from me at Warwick Castle the Hallowe’en festivities are bigger and more expensive than Christmas, with additional recruitment, special event shows, spectacles, experiences and castle-dressing lasting a month. How did it come to this? That an ancient Celtic festival, and subsequent Christian celebrations to remember the dead, evolved into a commercial holiday? One that, apparently, should be spent surrounded by grimacing candle-lit pumpkins, dressing up in skeleton, ghoul or devil costumes, drinking grotesquely coloured cocktails and being harassed by an endless stream of children on the doorstep demanding free food??!!
Can we blame the Americans? Well yes and no. What appear to be distinctly American Hallowe’en traditions actually developed over time. They in fact borrowed from native traditions and those brought over from different European ethnic groups, especially during the mass migrations of the late 19th century. Mainland Europe had been predominantly Catholic for centuries, so many immigrants would have been familiar with the 3-day observance of services, prayers and vigils that began on All Hallows Eve (31 October), dedicated to remembering all the departed faithful, including saints, martyrs and family members. Along the way, communities developed practices, based on superstition, to help the spirits of the deceased to come back to earth and rejoin their families at Hallowe’en. Practice became custom and the origins of many of today’s traditions, for example ‘trick-or-treat’, can be seen in the examples below.
• Leaving food treats on doorsteps and at the side of the road to guide a spirit home;
• Lighting candles along a route to guide spirits from and back to the spirit world;
• Dressing in a costume/ disguise to avoid being recognised by a spirit when out at night;
• Going from house to house in costume to ask for food and/or money.
Similarly, the Church of England observances included organised All Souls Parades, allowing poor citizens to beg for food and be given ‘soul cakes’ in return for a promise to pray for a family’s dead relatives. And the custom of leaving food and drink out in the streets for roaming spirits was also apparently common: the Church discouraged it in more hygiene-conscious times by organising a wide distribution of ‘soul cakes’ to poor parishioners.
The focus of all the above had been to garner the goodwill of the dead spirits to ensure a better life for the living in the future. However, as the 20th century progressed, in the US in particular the emphasis switched to malevolent, frightening, grotesque horror, with the finger pointing squarely at Hollywood: the 1978 Hallowe’en movie spawned a 12 movie franchise and slasher titles including Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Ironically, a backlash aiming to remove all things scary and grotesque from Hallowe’en celebrations in the US, concentrating on community celebrations around neighbourhood ‘trick-or-treating’, has had the effect (like the horror films) of stripping Hallowe’en of any religious or superstitious overtones. It is, well and truly, a commercial holiday.
However, in line with the original focus on the living and the future, as a single person I’ve been fascinated to learn of long-forgotten Hallowe’en matchmaker customs. There were any number of now obsolete superstitious rituals designed to help an unmarried woman to identify the identity of her future husband. These ranged from throwing nuts into a fire, throwing apple parings over the shoulder , staring at egg yolks in a bowl of water or a candle flame flickering in a mirror to reveal initials or a face. Or being the first the find a chestnut burr on a treasure hunt, a ring in a pudding or mashed potato, or to successfully bob the first apple in order to predict the first down the aisle in the next year.
I think it’s time to bring back some of these rituals, or even invent some new ones, in recognition of a relationship with the spirit world that the modern commercial extravaganza has totally warped. Now (just for a bit of fun you understand) where’s that apple peeler?
Christine Ingall 29 October 2019