Trick or Treat 

Hallow Even, Hallowe’en, or Hallow’s Eve, which eventually became known as Halloween, is on the Eve of All Saints’ Day, when Catholics commemorate the saints and martyrs. Hallow is an Old English word for ‘saint’. Protestants, however, commemorate Reformation Day on October 31 because, on this day in 1517, Martin Luther affixed his epoch-making ninety-five theses on the castle church doors in Wittenberg in Germany.

The modern celebration of Halloween is a descendant of the ancient pagan Celtic fire festival Samhain. All attempts to Christianise this festival by making it Hallow Even on October 31, All Saints’ Day on November 1, and All Souls’ Day on November 2 failed to obliterate the festival’s pagan character. Halloween is still typified by the ubiquitous imagery of grotesque masks, hollowed-out pumpkins, and broomstick-riding witches to frighten away evil spirits and demons. Even the phrase ‘trick or treat’ harks back to the giving of food as compensation for frightening or tricking away evil spirits. 

Before Christianity, the Celts in Europe celebrated two great fire festivals each year: Beltane on the eve of May 1 and Samhain on October 31. Despite these dates, lacking a connection with the equinoxes or the solstices or with sowing and reaping, the festivals of Beltane and Samhain marked the beginning of summer and winter, respectively, because the Celts were primarily a pastoral people, as opposed to an agricultural people. In high latitudes, the solar year was often divided into two instead of four seasons. Exactly when Germanic and Celtic people discovered the solstices remains unknown, although it is believed that this knowledge came from the ancient Egyptians during their trade in tin and salt with the ancient European peoples.

The festival of Samhain was held from sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 2. In northern Europe, it signalled the beginning of the long winter season, which lasted until May and marked the end of harvest time. The ancient festival of Samhain recognised the dead and the powers of darkness. Therefore, sacred bonfires were traditionally lit during Samhain on the tops of hills. 

Universally, the sun was seen as the source of all life and nourishment. The presence of the sun was, however, not constant, as it died every evening to be reborn the next morning. Especially in northern European countries, the daily duration of the sun’s presence varies greatly throughout the year; in midwinter, it seems as though the sun vanishes altogether. This must have been a frightening concept to the ancients who, through rituals involving fire, which was considered a representation of the sun, aimed to ensure the lengthening of the days. With fire, the sun was also symbolised by wheels or discs, which were found in tombs and burial mounds throughout central and Western Europe and in Eastern and Asian countries, probably to light the way in the land of the dead. 

Samhain, meaning ‘summer’s end’, marked not only the onset of the long northern winter, but also the beginning of the Celtic year. Similar to a child being born from the darkness of the womb, it was thought that nature sprouted forth from the blackness of the ground, and thus according to Celtic belief, the New Year was born from the dark gloom of winter. This was the time when cattle were brought indoors from the surrounding pastures, and domestic animals and humans then spent the long winters indoors under cover together. 

All turning points in the cycle of life were viewed by the Celts as magical times, especially the transition from the old to the New Year. Mythology and folk traditions in Ireland, Wales, and northwest England associate this time with visitations from ghosts, goblins, and fairies. This was perceived as a brief period when the screen separating our real world from the supernatural was thin, when spirits suddenly became visible to humans, and supernatural forces returned to the physical plane and influenced people. 

The Celts believed that with the onset of winter and the disappearance of the sun, the poor shivering souls of the dead were stalking the countryside and, therefore visited the living on this night, seeking shelter. Their ghosts were likely to come indoors seeking cover and protection, which is why food was fearfully left for them in the parlours of houses and fires kept continuously burning in hearths. Most of all, it became imperative to frighten these forces away and to guard against them by any means available. Masks were worn in order not to be recognised by evil entities and fairies, which might otherwise spirit a person away. Disguises to fool or trick evil spirits ranged from soot-blackened faces to clothes worn inside out or back to front. Hollowed-out turnip heads inserted with lighted candles and placed on windowsills were also believed to frighten these forces away. Because this night belonged to neither the one world nor the other, it was also a night for horseplay and practical jokes before the gloom of the long winter set in.

Bonfires on hills were a conspicuous feature of the old Halloween rites in northern European countries. In England, these bonfires were transferred to November 5 to mark the arrest of Guy Fawkes. Some of the traditions of the ancient festival of Samhain can still be perceived on Guy Fawkes Night by the knowledgeable observer. In northern Europe, the belief is still common that if one hears footsteps approaching from behind on this night, one should not look back, as it might be the dead, and one might soon join them!  

During the 1800s, many Europeans immigrated to America, with the result that holidays and traditions from different cultures merged. Halloween was now also called Devil’s Night or Hell Night and to many, became ‘mischief night’, a time to play tricks on others. In America, the hollowed-out pumpkin has taken over the role of the turnip used in Europe. Most beliefs once surrounding this day have been forgotten, and the festival of Halloween has become disguised in commercialism. Halloween has become a family event in the U.S., and the masks and disguises have remained. In addition, funny plastic hats are sported, adults go to masked balls or fancy-dress parties, families enjoy favourite recipes and get-togethers, and children go trick-or-treating. Going from door to door, trick-or-treaters collect sweets, biscuits, apples, and other goodies. If no treat or present is forthcoming, a trick or practical joke might be played on the householder.

In Catholic South and Central America, the festival of the dead is called El Dia de los Muertos or, alternatively, Los Dias de los Muertos,118 as the celebrations last for three days. No other nation has embraced this ‘Festival of the Dead’ to the extent that the Mexicans have. Beginning on October 31 and lasting until November 2, it is one of the most important holidays of the year for them. Candles are lit in the memory of ancestors; altars in homes are decorated with fruit, bread, sweets, and flowers; and people dress in costumes and fancy dress, marching in parades and processions through the streets.


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