Halloween is upon us and – depending on things like where you live; how old you are; and what your experiences have been, to name but a few – people are either looking forward to it with pleasure or fear.
Young people in the west particularly, are keen for the fun and frolics we associate with 31st October. They like the parties and pumpkins, trick-or-treating and getting dressed up to frighten themselves and others silly. Further east, however, it’s quite a different story.
The further east and to more orthodox catholic countries you go, Halloween becomes more a matter of purgatory and punishment. For them, it’s a night when the souls of the dead walk the earth not for the fun of it, but because they haven’t made it into heaven. They are troubled spirits being punished for the sins they have committed whilst on earth.
In countries where a more traditional catholic faith is practiced – like Austria, for example – Halloween is a night when they say prayers for tortured souls and their loved ones who have died, that they may have been safely received into Heaven. They also make their preparations for November 1st, which is All Hallows day.
All Hallows Day – also known as All Saints day – is not only a day for remembering dead saints, but also about honouring family and friends who have died. People visit cemeteries for reasons of respect, not to see if they can scare themselves silly as many do in less devout countries.
But when we look back at the roots of things like trick-or-treating and the pumpkin partying we do in the west, it seems the differences aren’t so great. In ancient times poor people in Britain and Ireland where these practices started (not America as many believe), would travel from house to house saying prayers or singing songs of respect for the dead in return for food. And lamps were lit to help show the spirits of the dead – who were believed to walk among them the night before All Hallows day – their way. They did this not only from a position of fear, but also respect.
When we get dressed to go out on Halloween (the eve of All Hallows day), we tend to wear scary outfits, become ghosts and ghouls and wear other horrible attire. But this is nothing new. In Celtic times, for example, the end of summer and coming of winter was marked by building bonfires and dressing in animal skins and wearing animal heads during ceremonies intended to please the Gods. They said thanks for the harvest to the Gods of summer and tried to please the Gods of winter through their rituals of sacrifice.
So as we get ready to party and play on Halloween, maybe we ought to stop a moment or two and reflect on what it is we are actually doing and why.
Have fun by all means, but remember there are those – and many among us here on the Fylde coast – for whom this is a very important and respectful time. Before we go banging on doors and playing silly games on each other, we should try to remember that it is not only the elderly we risk frightening unnecessarily. There are other members of our community who might also be distressed by what we do or say and for very different reasons.
Linda also writes a blog on Austrian Alpine Holidays – you can read her latest one here about Halloween in Austria.