Halloween’s past and present
A Day of the Dead offering in the Nunkini cemetery, in Campeche, Mexico. (Jeffrey Becom/LPI)
On the last night of the autumn harvest, the world changes from the sunny warmth of summer to the cold dark of winter, the land from fertile to barren. The ancient Celts believed this transition gave supernatural forces a chance to break through into the world of the living, and their evil mischief to flourish.
They came to celebrate the night leading into winter as Samhain (meaning “summer’s end”), the festival widely considered to be the precursor of Halloween. On Samhain night, the Celts believed, the spirits of people who had died in the past year would walk among the living, so. villagers put out food and sweets to pacify these spirits – a ritual that may have preceded trick-or-treating. (There is no hard evidence, however, that Samhain was indeed a festival of the dead, points out historian Nicholas Rogers, in his book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.)
Although Halloween has pagan origins, its name is derived from the Christian holiday “All Hallows Eve”, or the evening before All Saints’ Day (1 November). The holiday itself was adapted by Christians who hoped to stamp out paganism, and over the years, some of the darker aspects of Halloween have been replaced by more light-hearted, family-friendly festivities. But Halloween’s ties with the scary and supernatural still hold strong today, in celebrations all over the world.
In Ireland, arguably the holiday’s birthplace, Halloween is still greeted with excitement each year, and it is celebrated with fireworks, monkey nuts (another name for peanuts) and barnbrack. a fruitcake with different charms baked inside. If your piece has the ring, romantic fortune is in your future; if you get the coin, it’s piles of money for you – but if you get the rag, you’d better start tightening your purse strings.
Soak in Halloween history at the Samhain Festival at the Glasnevin Museum in Dublin (26 October to 31 October). Highlights include a gravedigger’s tour of Glasnevin Cemetery and a Samhain storytelling supper.
Cemeteries are also big attractions during Día de los Muertos in Mexico. The Day of the Dead is an indigenous holiday dating back thousands of years that honours deceased ancestors. When the Spanish spread Catholicism throughout Mexico, the day was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (2 November), hence the close connection with Halloween. Common rituals involve wearing skull masks – the Aztecs originally kept and displayed loved ones’ skulls – and making shrines adorned with flowers, candles, pictures and food for the dead.
Currently, the city of Aguascalientes is hosting Festival Cultural de Calaveras, or the Festival of Skulls, from 28 October to 6 November. It is a colourful festival of art, theatre, music, dance and food, since Día de los Muertos is meant to celebrate death as a joyous part of life.
In Romania, Halloween is a major draw for tourists seeking a Dracula themed scare. Several Halloween tours take visitors to Transylvania’s vampire haunts, and you can also go in search of the real Dracula in Wallachia.
In the United States, Halloween means costume parties, trick-or-treating, harvest festivals, haunted houses, pranks and more, with both young and the old getting in on the fun. The Punkin Chunkin world championship is a pumpkin-launching competition held every year in Delaware. For a fantastically frightful experience, head to the Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison in Philadelphia, which recreates a creepy atmosphere for its annual Terror Behind the Walls haunted house.