The Day of the Dead

31 Oct

October 31 is everyone’s favourite horror holiday – the one time each year when the mundane is overturned in favour of the bizarre and anyone can become anything they wish. Whilst, at its core, Halloween seems to be a chance to confront our most primal fears (and often attempt to mock them!), it is also a holiday which encompasses many other things, including ancient beliefs, religious meanings, a multitude of ethnic heritages, diverse occult traditions and the continual influence of popular culture. Let’s have a look at the history of Halloween and what it means today.

Hallow is an old word meaning holy and October 31 is traditionally the eve of the Feast of All Saints (or All Hallows, hence the holiday’s other popular name of All Hallows’ Eve). Its older name, however is Samhain (pronounced ‘sowen’), the ancient Celtic harvest festival. It was also sometimes called Nutcrack Night, because young people put nuts on the hearth to see if their sweethearts were true to them. If the nut burned normally, all was well, but if it burst or rolled away the sweetheart was untrue. In Britain November 5 is Bonfire Night but, for centuries before Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament, huge bonfires had been lit on the hillsides for folk to dance around in the belief that this would keep evil away. Farmers would then carry blazing brands from the bonfire round their farms and, in some places, masses of flaming straw were carried to a height and flung into the air, while all present knelt on the bare ground and prayed, Wicker Man-style. When these ceremonies were over, everyone returned home to a feast of seedcake, roasted apples and spiced ale.

From the Old World to the New, and in the 17th century, immigrants brought a variety of traditions, beliefs, customs and superstitions to what would later become the USA. In New England, the Puritans brought their fear of witchcraft and history of persecuting pagans to the colonies. Many Germans who settled in the Quaker-run state of Pennsylvania also had pronounced supernatural beliefs and mystical ideas. Spanish Catholic influence was felt in Florida and African slaves imported a belief in an active spirit world into the southern colonies. In the early 19th century, Cubans and Haitians fleeing unrest in the Caribbean strengthened the Voudoun culture in the South, while Mexican Catholic traditions of the Day of the Dead were strong in the Southwest. But it was the Irish who had the greatest influence on the overall celebration of Halloween in the USA, when around a million of them (about half the population of Ireland at the time) emigrated there between 1820 and 1850.

In Ireland All Hallows’ Eve was marked by mummers’ processions of young men, while young Irish women marked the night with various methods of foretelling the future. Irish villagers had used carved-out turnips – abundant in late autumn – to make cheap lanterns with which to light their way as the evenings darkened toward winter. This was the origin of the jack-o-lanterns, which some say were carved or painted with scary faces to frighten away the spirits on Halloween (in the USA the more widely available pumpkin took the place of the turnip).  By the beginning of the twentieth century, Halloween became more of a children’s holiday full of harmless amusements like bobbing for apples as the middle classes sought to downplay the Irish Catholic connections. Among the lower classes, however, Halloween remained a night of rough mischief – at least until youngsters were encouraged to ‘trick-or-treat’ rather than make trouble.

These days, Halloween is, for most, a purely secular holiday – and big business at that. In the USA, only Christmas is bigger in terms of retail dollars spent. What we do at Halloween tends to vary from person to person depending on our beliefs and backgrounds – in some parts of the world All Saints’ Day is still an important day of Christian religious observance, while modern Wiccans and other neopagans consider Samhain a major holiday. In the western world, Halloween is one of the biggest party days of the year, right up there with New Year’s Eve and St Patrick’s Day. So however you’re celebrating the horror holiday – watching a scary movie, dressing up as your favourite monster, lighting a candle for the departed or dancing naked around a bonfire – I hope you have a happy, and above all, safe Halloween!

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7 Responses to “The Day of the Dead”

  1. startingoveringermany October 31, 2011 at 7:27 am #

    Happy Halloween for you too! In the State I normally go trick or treating with nieces and nephew or to a party. Here I relax and watch marathon of horror movies since Halloween is rarely celebrated here.

  2. thesweetkitten October 31, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    Happy Halloween! In Belgium it’s not that popular yet. I will probably watch some Japanese horror movies this evening 🙂

  3. LilMissKaty November 1, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    What an interesting blog! Thanks so much for sharing all the history 🙂 I knew some parts (like the turnips) but not others (that they were of Irish origin!). Thoroughly enjoyed reading 🙂

  4. anilbalan November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

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