“Don’t ever accept sweets from a stranger.” This is a sentence that almost every child has heard while growing up. Yet on 31 October each year parents send their children off to ask strangers for sweets. As you get older, sweets turn into alcohol and trick or treating turns into dress up parties. Over the years, many traditions have developed around celebrating Halloween.
It began as a harvest festival called Samhain (pronounced “sow-in” or “sah-win”) which was celebrated at the end of the Celtic year. According to “The history of Halloween plus 5 things you didn’t know about the holiday” written by Katla McGlynn, it was believed that the spirits of the dead would return on the last day of the year to destroy crops. As a ritual, bonfires were lit and crops and animals were sacrificed to placate the spirits.
When the Romans made their way to England, Scotland and France, which were Celtic territories at the time, they brought along their holiday of Feralia, which was about honouring the dead during late October. They also brought a tradition about honouring the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. This is believed to be the reason for giving apples on Halloween.
Costumes are a major part of the celebrations. Those who celebrated Samhain wore animal skins and the Scottish would dress to mimic the dead during the day. The various disguises were meant to protect individuals from being recognised as human by the demons that arose. Nowadays costumes are not limited to such sinister themes and many people dress as their favourite television characters, superheroes or someone they are inspired by.
Students may struggle to afford elaborate Halloween costumes, but there are certain cost-effective ways in which you can dress up. These include using eyeliner and red lipstick to look like either a zombie or a bloodthirsty vampire and using old clothes that can be torn and re-stitched as desired.
When Christianity spread, All Saints’ Day, which honoured saints and martyrs, became a part of the Celtic territories’ traditions. Samhain was replaced by All Saints’ Day, which was later renamed All Hallows’ Eve, and was finally shortened to Halloween.
Halloween was not primarily an American tradition. The US was influenced by the Irish, Scottish and English when they sailed across the ocean in the 19th century. The poor would beg for sweet bread and offer prayers for the families of those who gave in return, instead of the current “trick-or-treat” tradition.
According to “Halloween history” from Halloweenhistory. org, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK, among others, adopted Halloween as a holiday from the early 20th century.
Halloween is celebrated in different ways around the world. In Australia, some people leave bread, water and a lamp on before they go to sleep on the night of Halloween, as it is believed that the items will invite dead souls to earth which will bring along strong cosmic energy.
The Belgians light candles in memory of their dead loved ones and the Germans hide their knives so that they are not harmed by the spirits that return. In Sweden, Halloween is known as Alla helgons dag and is celebrated for seven days from 31 October to 6 November. On the Friday before All Saints’ Day, university students are given half the day off while school children have the full day off. China has a festival called Teng Chieh to remember those who died in such a manner that their bodies could never be buried, such as in an accident or drowning, so that their spirits can go to heaven. France does not celebrate Halloween as it is largely seen as “American” and was almost unknown until 1996.
Although Halloween is not a recognised holiday in South Africa, many people express interest in it. In 2013, a student came to Tuks dressed in a genuine-looking Iron Man exoskeleton. Although it is not a South African tradition, an increase in popularity has been seen, just as in various countries around the world.
Illustration: Johann van Tonder