Halloween, also known as All Hallow’s Eve, is a holiday that is both new and old. While its roots can be traced back to ancient times, it has really only been celebrated in the modern way for 50 or 60 years, primarily in the USA and Canada.
More than 2000 years ago, the Celts lived in modern Ireland. The time between harvest and winter was an important one for them, and on the 31st of October each year they celebrated Samhain. This celebration mainly consisted of bonfires, food, and sacrifices to the Gods (mostly crops and animals). It was believed that the spirits of the dead could return on this night, and that the veils between life and death, summer and winter, were thinner and more easily pierced. So the celebrants would often dress in costume to hide from malicious spirits.
When the Roman empire spread through Europe and Britain, they brought with them their own customs and beliefs. The Romans celebrated the passing of the dead in late October, as well as a day of worship for Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees. Both of these holidays were incorporated into the Celtic Samhain, adding an extra element of ghostliness and Pomona’s symbol, the apple, to the day.
As Christianity spread through the world, heathens were encouraged and then instructed to stop practicing their own celebrations. When that didn’t work, Catholic leaders began moving Christian feasts and holidays to coincide with Heathen feasts. Thus the day to celebrate Christian martyrs and saints was moved from May to November 1, and called All Saints Day — or Alholowmesse in Middle English. The night before, the traditional night of Samhain, soon came to be known as All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween.
The modern idea of Halloween in the US and Canada has only existed since around the 1950s. Although Halloween was celebrated in North America for a couple of hundred years before that, the traditions of today weren’t around prior to mid 20th century. But most of them date back to the older, heathen customs.
Costume wearing is from the Celtic tradition of hiding from mischievous dead. Trick-or-Treating was the Church-sanctified replacement for sacrificing food to the Gods. Pumpkin carving relates to the Celtic practice of extinguishing all hearth fires and then re-lighting them from the communal bonfires. Apple bobbing is a nod to the Roman Goddess Pomona. And the name, Halloween, is a version of the Christian All Saint’s Eve.
All of which is very interesting, but doesn’t explain why I hate Halloween.
I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, without ever hearing about Halloween. Back in those days, no one in Australia celebrated it. Or, if they did, they did so quietly. There was certainly no costumes or trick-and-treating. And doing so would have made no sense. It’s the start of summer. Why celebrate something spooky when the sun is just starting to stay out late?
But when I was 8 years old, we moved to the States for two years. And, my oh my, didn’t I get an education in Halloween?
The food! The candy! The costumes! The candy! The bigger-than-your-head plastic orange pumpkin buckets to carry said candy! The songs and riddles and games! The parties! The candy! The decorations! Did I mention the candy?
I don’t honestly remember what I dress up as for the two years I was there. But I remember wandering the neighbourhood, going door to door to ask for candy, and having total strangers gush about how great we looked and drop handfuls of cheap chocolate and sugary goodness into our outstretched buckets.
I remember getting home and tipping our loot out on to the floor, and staring in wonder. And then eating as much as I could before falling into bed with a stomch ache.
I remember going to the most amazing party I’d ever been to, with witches and wizards and ghosts and goblins and a few devils. (I was too young to understand that all devils weren’t scantily-clad young blonde women.) We played games, and listened to ghost stories, and did some apple bobbing, and ate candy, and I had the best time of my young life.
I remember my parents going all out with decorating our house, and my Dad getting right into character as a mad scientist/psychopath, ready to hand out candy to all comers. I will never forget walking home after our trick-and-treating was finished, and meeting another group of kids who were just leaving our house. “Don’t go up there,” one of them said, his voice shaking a little. “I think there’s dead bodies. And the man’s really scary.”
I loved Halloween. Even more than Christmas.
And then we moved back to Australia.
We don’t celebrate Halloween in Australia. Just like we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, or the 4th of July. Halloween is not an Australian holiday. And after I got over my initial disappointment that there would be no more tubs of free candy or school days spent watching scary movies, I was okay with that.
I am okay with that.
What I’m not okay with is the way that faux-Halloween-fever invades Australia at this time of year.
Walk into a shopping mall, and everywhere you look there are cheap Halloween costumes for kids, tacky decorations, and spider-webs strung everywhere. The thing is: none of it is really for Halloween. It’s just a way to display dodgy old stock in an attempt to cash in on the idea that Halloween is cool.
And it is.
If you’re in the US or Canada.
Turn on the TV at the end of October and all you’ll see if Halloween specials. Even on Australian shows. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo.
Memo: We don’t celebrate Halloween in Australia.
Every year, one or two groups of children knock on the door looking for candy. And every year I say no. If for no other reason than because everyone (who celebrates Halloween) knows that you only trick-or-treat at houses with the light on.
Do I wish we celebrated Halloween in Australia? Sometimes. Actually, yes. Yes, I do.
But hanging fake cobwebs over the confectionery aisle in the supermarket and using Halloween Specials to boost TV ratings doesn’t mean we’ve got a holiday. It means we’ve got an excuse for more commercialism.
And that’s why I hate Halloween in Australia.
What do you think, am I a cranky curmudgeon (get off my lawn!), or do I have a point?