Love it or hate it, it’s Halloween season and the shops are full of ghosts and witches to celebrate. This version of Halloween is a relatively recent event on New Zealand’s calendar, but is gaining in popularity every year. Like Christmas and Easter, Halloween decorations are appearing on the shelves earlier and earlier, and more and more community events are held to get the public into the spooky spirit. The origins of Halloween are, however, a little darker than our modern LED candles and holographic ghosts.
What we call Halloween started with the ancient Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in), celebrated at the end of the bountiful summer and autumn harvest and before the cold, dark and potentially fatal winter approached. It was believed that All Hallows’ Even was the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest and it was possible for the recently departed to come back in search of a living body to take over for a year. In order to try and repel possession, the Celts would extinguish the fires to make their homes cold and unwelcoming, then dress in ghoulish costumes and loudly parade around their townships to scare away any spirits.
By the time the Romans had conquered the Celtic lands in AD 43 they had merged two of their own festivals with Samhain; Parentalia was the commemoration of the dead culminating with the Feralia Feast, and the festival for Pomona, the Goddess of fruit and trees, symbolized by the apple.
Christianity spread, and in 835 AD Pope Boniface IV declared 1 November as All Saints’ Day to honour the saints and martyrs. Around 1000 AD the Christian church made 2 November All Souls’ Day to honour those who had died within the last year. These events were celebrated with bonfires, parades and donning the costumes of saints, angels, and imps.
The Celts would leave offerings of wine and food for passing ghosts to take rather than livestock and crops, but the Church encouraged offering soul cakes instead. The practice of “going a-souling” was when the poor and homeless would beg for food and be given soul cakes in exchange for their prayers for the dead.
By the 16th century this practice was known as mumming or guising. Participants would dress up in costume and go from door to door collecting apples and nuts, food, or coins in exchange for performing a trick such as reciting a poem or song. Some believed wearing a ghoulish costume would offer protection from the spirits they represented, while a household offering food would bring them luck. To not offer anything was to invite bad luck, and this soon became the excuse to play pranks on those who didn’t contribute.
The three days of All Hallows’ Even, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were collectively referred to as Allhallowtide, or Hallowmas. The term “Halloween” first appeared in reference to the festival in 1745. Other older customs were still practiced, including hollowing out turnips and carving faces on them to use as lamps, and telling fortunes or playing games with apples and nuts.
The idea of Halloween was introduced to America by Irish migrants in the 1840s and continues to grow in popularity around the world. In 1875 the Wanganui Chronicle reported on the Halloween celebration held at Balmoral Castle, where servants and tenants carried lit torches in procession to a bonfire and then had an evening of dancing reels with Queen Victoria joining in.
By 1910 Halloween concerts with a distinctly Scottish feel were held in Whanganui featuring nights of songs, stories and dancing while pipes and drums provided the music. The feature performance was a recitation of Robert Burns’ poem Halloween.
The superstitious aspect of Halloween has, in most circles, died away, but many of the practices still remain and are carried out around the globe, the emphasis being on having fun rather than fending off ghosts and goblins.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.