Halloween: the strange tales behind the spooky traditions
Costumes, lanterns and evil spirits: how a Christian deal with pagans led to modern Halloween
With Halloween fast approaching, it's time once again for Americans to dig out their costumes and party - and Britons to turn off the lights, draw the curtains and pretend they're not at home.
But even the grumpiest of Halloween cynics would have to concede that the festival has a fascinating history. Modern customs may seem baldly commercial, but many are older - and stranger - than you might imagine.
How Halloween began
Customs now associated with Halloween have their origins in an ancient Celtic festival of the dead called Sanhain (pronounced 'sow'inn'), meaning summer's end. The Celts believed this was the time when the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, allowing the spirits of the dead to freely move among the living.
Around the 8th century, the Christian church began to celebrate All Hallows' Day. It placed the holiday on 1 November in an attempt to accommodate pagan practices, including Sanhain, thus smoothing their path to conversion.
On the night before All Hallows' Day Christians would attend a vigil in preparation for a great feast. This event, known as All Hallows' Eve, became Halloween.
Truth or myth?
Although many people suspect that Halloween customs have been concocted by commercial interests, some of the traditions have a long history:
Spooky costumes: Halloween costumes have their origins in Sanhain. Celts would dress as evil spirits on October 31 in an attempt to blend in with wandering souls from the other side. They believed that meeting an evil spirit would be less dangerous if they were dressed to look alike
Trick or treating: This tradition seems to date from the Middle Ages, when the wealthy would share food with the poor during festivals. Paupers would knock on doors and beg for food in return for songs and prayers for the homeowner's dead loved ones - a practice known as 'souling'.
Carving pumpkins: Crafting Jack O'Lanterns stems from a time when Celts would carve large turnips, potatoes or beets, lighting them inside to ward off the wondering spirit of Stingy Jack. The tradition travelled to America with Irish immigrants, who discovered a better-suited vegetable: the pumpkin.
Halloween in Britain
Once merely a prelude to Guy Fawkes Day, Halloween is now firmly established in the British calendar. Sales of Halloween-themed items have grown from £12m in 2001 to a forecast £325m this year, according to The New York Times.
We’re still a long way behind the US, but the gap is narrowing. “While sales of Halloween items in the United States are expected to slip by 6 percent this year to $6.9 billion, sales in Britain are forecast to grow 12 percent,” the paper reports.
Some in Britain are sorry to see Bonfire Night eclipsed by a foreign import – albeit one that originated on our own Celtic fringe.
“Poor old Guy Fawkes Night,” wrote Ed Cummings last year, “has slipped from fashion. The margins on fireworks aren’t as good as they are on fake blood, and under-18s are banned from buying them. In a society where sellers of tea have to warn customers that the contents ‘may be hot’, over-the-counter explosives are out of favour.”
The New York Times has another explanation for the rise of Halloween: “The British love costumes, and costume dramas are a staple of British television,” the paper asserts. “To dress up and to be observed is almost a national sport, whether at horse races, rowdy rugby matches, drunken university parties or balls for young socialites.”
Halloween around the world
While British Halloween celebrations have increasingly followed the American lead, other nations have preserved their own traditions. Often these focus on a celebration of the dead and their effect on the living.
Mexico, Latin America and Spain: Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a joyous celebration of lost relatives, who are believed to return to their houses on Halloween. The three-day celebration, which begins on 31 October, involves building an altar at home and decorating it with sweets, flowers, photographs and samples of the deceased's favourite foods.
China: The Chinese equivalent of Halloween is Teng Chieh, which celebrates the connections between the living and the dead. Families traditionally place food and water next to photographs of deceased family members, while lanterns and bonfires are lit to guide home the departed.
Japan: Japan celebrates its version of Halloween, Obon or Festival of the Lanterns, in August. According to the tradition, dead ancestors return each year to the place they were born, guided by red lanterns hung in doorways and released into rivers and seas on the last day of the festival.
We've dedicated our weekly viral video round-up to the best Halloween pranks and costumes. Click here for our full collection of funny Halloween videos, or watch the example below made by Texas-based filmmaker Joe Nicolosi. In it we see what would happen if the usual hapless horror stars were replaced with sensible people capable of making rational decisions.