STEPHANIE COOKSON AND SUE DE SOUZA
Origins of Halloween
Halloween is considered a famous international holiday celebrated in various places including America and Europe. In South Africa, while it may not be the typical trick-or-treating experience, it is still an event that is enjoyed by many and provides students with one final celebration before the upcoming exams, as the end of October is fast-approaches. Halloween, like many holidays, is steeped in a rich history with influences coming from many different countries, cultures and belief systems. Throughout history, it has been remoulded and is ever-changing in our society.
Many people think of Halloween as an American holiday where children dress up as ghouls and wander the neighbourhood in search of candy. But often people are unaware of the fact that Halloween did not originate in America at all. It was a Celtic festival called Samhain.
Originally, Samhain occurred on 1 November and was simply a New Year’s celebration marking the end of summer and the beginning of another potentially fatal winter. On this night, it was believed that Samhain, the Lord of the Dead, would gather those who had passed away during the previous year. With the line between the dead and the living blurred, the dead could roam the earth and the priests were given the enhanced ability to more accurately prophesize about the future.
Rituals also accompanied this event. Bonfires were meant to ward away evil spirits, and people dressed up in animal hides to disguise themselves from the supernatural whilst they enjoyed feasts made especially for the occasion and presented sacrifices to thank the Sun God for another generous summer – according to Hugh O’Donnell’s book, Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World.
With Christianity spreading across Europe, it is no surprise that Celtic traditions were heavily influenced and altered, Samhain was no exception. While the day was still celebrated with costumes of saints, angels and devils, the name of celebration changed to All-hallows. This All-Hallows Eve, or All Saints Day as it’s translated in Middle English, is what eventually became the Halloween we know today.
When Halloween came to America in the form of colonial New England, it merged with American Indian traditions, becoming something unique all on its own. Public events celebrating a good harvest were called ‘play parties’ (as stated by History. com) where neighbours would gather round to tell stories of the dead, predict each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Immigrants who arrived into America became the vector with which to spread Halloween across the nation, keeping it alive to the day.
“With the line between the dead and the living blurred, the dead could roam the earth and the priests were given the enhanced ability to more accurately prophesize about the future.”
Jack-o’-lanterns, an iconic symbol of the American Halloween, even has its roots in Ireland from an Irish folktale about a man named Jack. The tale suggests that this man, dubbed ‘Stingy Jack’ was foolish enough to play tricks on the Devil himself. He would only free the demonic deity from the trap he had set once the Devil promised not to collect his soul once he died. When Jack finally passed away God would not allow him into heaven due to his earthly behaviour and the Devil, angered by Jack’s the treatment he received from Jack, and true to his word refused to send him to Hell. He was then forced to aimlessly wander the earth with only a burning coal to light his way. According to Irish legend, it is said he placed the coal into a carved-out turnip, which became the very first jack-o’-lantern. As the tale spread from country to country, different cultures used different vegetables to house their coals, such as beets and potatoes. It was only when the tradition found its way to the United States that pumpkins were used, simply for the fact that they were bigger and easier to carve.
Eventually, the holiday became more about community rather than religion, ghosts or witchcraft. The original spirit behind it began to fade away and many of the horrifying elements, commonly associated with its original purpose, were removed in favour of harmless tricks, delicious food and less frightening costumes.
However, Halloween was still viewed as a night of superstition. Spilling salt, stepping on cracks and walking under ladders were considered especially bad on Halloween nights where witches in the guise of cats were assumed to be roaming around or perched on broomsticks, followed closely by malevolent spirits, faery folk and goblins.
But not all of Halloween is necessarily spooky. In some cases, it was even considered the perfect matchmaking medium with many smaller rituals and traditions rumoured to predict the name or appearance of a woman’s future husband, such as yarn tricks and apple bobbing.
Other, older methods are mentioned in Halloween, by Ralph Linton on the origins Halloween, include a woman eating a mixture of sugar, nutmeg, hazelnuts and walnuts before bed that night to dream about her future husband, throwing apple-peels over her shoulder so they would land in the shape of her future husband’s initials, and peering into a mirror with a single candle to illuminate the dark, and glancing over her shoulder with the hopes of catching a glimpse of his face.
South Africa and Beyond
Halloween is often described as an “American export”, meaning that as a holiday or tradition, it has been spread all over the world, its American character ever-present. Countries all over the world, like South Africa, may leave some parts out, like trick or treating, which might not be the safest activity on the streets of Pretoria, but maintain all the hallmarks of American Halloween: macabre, horror, and costume parties themed around ghosts, spookiness, and even the occult. The extreme lengths to which Americans take Halloween is incomparable to any other country, with seven in every ten Americans taking part in celebrations, and billions of dollars being spent on costumes, decorations and parties every year (estimated at between $7 billion and $9 billion.)
Professor Catherine Burns, an Associate Professor from UP’s Sociology Department with a PhD in History, said that some local celebrations of ‘All Hallows Eve’ were celebrated among settlers in South Africa from Celtic regions, but that these were not commercial and were isolated to familial or rural traditions. Other than this, South Africa does not have a longstanding mainstream tradition around Halloween that precedes the recent decades, the commercialised ‘American’ versions of the holiday have only just begun to rise locally.
Burns explained that the slow at first and then very sudden explosion in popularity after the 1980s in the mainstream, large scale celebrations of the holiday began in Germany, Japan, and other countries all over the world. These changes were the result of the globalisation of American culture, largely due to Disney. After World War II, the Hollywood filmmakers from Disney adopted Halloween into their mythical and cultural tropes to use in cartoons. Many 20th century Disney stories are based on much older folktales and myths, such as Red Riding Hood, a European story from the 10th century.
Countries all over the world have found ways to ‘import’ and reinvent Halloween in their own ways. Mainly due to pop-culture influences, Australia also celebrates the spooky season in the transition from spring to summer, similar to South Africa.
Halloween in Australia doesn’t have any traditional roots and is criticized for being an unwanted American influence, but supporters maintain that embracing the spooky celebrations is the same as embracing St Patrick’s, and its popularity has been growing through both Australia and New Zealand.
South Africa, like other countries, has borrowed many parts of American Halloween, modifying it to suit not just the weather, but also safety hazards.
Canada’s first recorded Halloween activities were as early as 1911, brought with the Scottish immigrants in the late 1800s. Trick-or-treating was the main feature of celebrations, but as recently as 2014, it had to be cancelled in one Northern Canadian town because of roaming polar bears. Scottish traditions today include door-to-door visits from children who sing songs and ask for coins or money, as well as the familiar game of trying to grab apples from a bucket of water with only one’s teeth, according to Intangible Cultural Heritage, a Scottish website.
Some less familiar Halloween traditions include Germany’s knife-hiding. Stemming from the belief that the departed souls of dead relatives might visit during Halloween, in some regions of the country, hiding kitchen knives on Halloween is a way to prevent any returning spirits from being injured by the everyday knife movements in homes. In Austria, leaving bread and water outside overnight to provide hospitality and provisions for any visiting spirits is common. The Czech Republic’s tradition of placing one chair for each deceased family member around the fireplace is particularly eerie.
South Africa, like other countries, has borrowed many parts of American Halloween, modifying it to suit not just the weather, but also safety hazards. Often cited is the inappropriateness of door-to-door trick or treating in South Africa. That does not stop South Africans from celebrating though, with most drinking establishments planning annual spooky events and drinks specials. Halloween events around the country commonly feature alcohol, dress-up competitions and live music. Night runs and zombie walks, some of which are organised by Zombie Walk South Africa, have also been popular in the last few years, as well as screenings of horror movies. With summer well underway by the time of Halloween weekend, popular drinks and foods differ slightly from American traditions, with shooters, jelly shots, ice-lollies and punch being the most popular spooky stomach liners for a South African Halloween.
The history of Halloween illuminates how this modernised celebration, that many South Africans partake in, originated from old traditions and peculiar roots. Regardless of how long it has been around, or how much hotter, it is here than the places the holiday originates from, staying safe, dressing up in innovative costumes, dancing the night away and watching horror-movies seems like a much better way to have your spine shiver rather than exploring the GradeCenter.
So, while some critics might be against any further American influences, others may view Halloween as an opportunity to have a good time, and perhaps even a way to forge South African traditions for the future.