Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades.

We’ve reached that time of year again: Halloween. October 31 is dedicated to remembering the dead. Children and adults alike are dressed in monstrous costumes and run amok. We’ve all experienced fear, but Halloween is the particular time of year when we look for that rush that usually accompanies feeling scared. Apart from knowing its origin come from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which means ‘summer end’, it’s interesting to find out how its popularity has increased throughout the world.

It’s an ancient druidic holiday, one the Celtic people have celebrated for millennia. It is the crack between the last golden rays of summer and the dark of winter; the delicately balanced tweak of the year before it is given over entirely to the dark; a time for the souls of the departed to squint, to peek and perhaps to travel through the gap. What could be more thrilling and worthy of celebration than that? It is a time to celebrate sweet bounty, as the harvest is brought in. It is a time of excitement and pleasure for children before the dark sets in.

It was between the medieval and early modern period (1500-1800) that Halloween began to come into its own. Bonfires became especially popular in this period, although their use varied widely. A common use was simply to burn the Harvest chaff but over time the bonfires were seen as guiding Christian souls in purgatory or a means of warding off witchcraft and the plague. Even if witches were viewed with fear and suspicion, one of the most popular and prevalent of Halloween rituals was fortune telling. While some rituals were intended to prophesy the date of a person’s death, most were about romantic love and discerning the name of one’s future spouse. Many of them involved agriculture. For example, a person would pull kale or cabbage stalks from fields in the belief that the shape and taste of the stalks provided vital clues about the profession and character of one’s beloved.

Eating in general was an important component of Halloween as it is with many holidays. The most distinctive was “souling” or “soul-caking”, in which children went from house to house singing rhymes and saying prayers for the souls of the dead. The soul cakes they received in return were good luck and represented a soul being freed from purgatory.At first, Halloween traditions in the US blended British agricultural games with local harvest traditions. The apples popular in British fortune telling games were made into cider and served with doughnuts. It was in America the pumpkin emerged as Halloween’s vegetable of choice. America also gave rise to “trick or treating” in its modern form.

Today, Halloween is the largest non-Christian holiday in the US. By 2010 it surpassed both Valentine’s Day and Easter as the top US holiday for chocolate sales. Simultaneously, the US has exported Halloween to other countries, especially the UK.

As a festival Halloween has many faces: it memorialises the lifting of the veil between the living and the dead; it celebrates the harvest season; it marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn; and, with the changing seasons, it recalls the souls of the dead. Determining where Halloween comes from depends a great deal on which aspect of Halloween we choose to emphasise.

At the same time, Halloween is constantly and enigmatically shifting shape. It gives adults the opportunity to indulge in fears and fantasies in a socially acceptable way. It reverses traditional social rules about avoiding strangers and the dark side of human nature. It incorporates religion, nature, death and romance. And it continues to pull the wool over the eyes of historians, radio listeners and Halloween revellers.

– By Aarzoo Snigdha


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