Hallowe’en versus Hollywood

Say the word “Hallowe’en” in most parts of the world, and the reaction will be: pumpkins, candy apples, trick or treating, lanterns, fancy-dress parties, and of course, teenagers getting sliced and diced in leafy Californian suburbs by masked maniacs with mommy issues.

Hallowe’en, after all, is as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July, right?

Wrong, of course, as we know here in Ireland, but the rest of the planet isn’t so sure about that. I found it impossible, when living in Japan, to convince the natives that Halloween wasn’t an invention of 1970s America, but was in fact the modern expression of an ancient Irish festival called Samhain.

That old ritual marked life and death, the body and soul, the passing of the seasons, our world and the next. It has been hijacked by Hollywood, then reworked, repackaged, rebranded and re-sold back to us.

And like most Hollywood creations, it bears about as much relevance to reality as, well, a film about teenagers getting sliced and diced in leafy Californian suburbs by masked maniacs with mommy issues…


The Hollywood cliché

Halloween is an American festival which dates from round about the time murderous Michael Myers first broke out of the mental asylum, i.e. 1978.

The historical reality

While some historians have gone back as far as an ancient Roman festival of the dead called Parentalia, Halloween is generally considered to have derived from an Irish traditional event which developed between the 5th and 8th centuries.

Samhain, which translates as “summer’s end”, was celebrated over several days. It marked the end of the “lighter half” of the year and the beginning of the darkness, and was sometimes thought of as the Celtic New Year.

Our ancestors would take stock of food supplies, slaughter animals and so on. And convinced by the sight of dying plants and animals, they believed that the border between this world and the afterlife became porous at Samhain, thus allowing spirits to pass through.

People and their livestock would walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown into the flames. Samhain is still celebrated by people who have pagan, Wiccan or neo-Celtic beliefs.


The Hollywood cliché

Trick or treating is the classic, traditional Halloween activity.

The historical reality

The practice of begging for sweeties from the neighbours has by now become a tradition on October 31, yes, but it’s not part of the original Celtic festival. In fact, it dates from the Middle Ages and is a mixture of several different practices of the time, in Ireland and Britain: dressing up and going door-to-door at various holidays was common, while poor people would go “souling” on November 1, receiving food in return for their prayers for the dead.

The modern version of trick or treating enjoyed renewed popularity in the New World from the 1930s onwards and eventually returned to here.


The Hollywood cliché

People get dolled up in fancy dress for the fun of it, as a break from the boredom of their lives, and to increase their chances of sexual success at a Halloween booze-up.

The historical reality

People wore costumes and masks, or blackened their faces, to try and frighten or placate malevolent spirits. These they believed could pass into our world on this night, with predictably terrifying results.


The Hollywood cliché

Everybody hollows out a pumpkin, carves a face on to it and sticks a candle inside to make a spooky-looking lantern.

The historical reality

Actually, here they’re not too far wrong, except during Samhain the ancient Irish used a turnip – an indigenous vegetable of this island – called a Samhnag. These were thought to ward off harmful spirits.


The Hollywood cliché

Halloween is all about death, horror, evil, vampires, zombies, mummies, witches, werewolves and demons.

The historical reality

Where to begin? First, Samhain was not just about literal death; it also honoured the metaphorical death of summer – a time of growth, life, food production – the final harvest, the fact that free grazing is no longer possible for livestock, and the arrival of winter, when most living things either die off or go into the death-like state that is hibernation.

As regards evil, yes, there was a very real fear of malicious ghosties entering our realm, but the rest of it is pure Hollywood invention and has nothing to do with the Irish tradition of Samhain.

Vampires are an Eastern European legend, zombies hail from the West Indies, mummies are Egyptian, werewolves are middle European and demons are normally found in the Bible, a Middle Eastern book.

We’ve always had witches, of course – and still do – but practitioners of the ancient knowledge of Wicca would be horrified to think that they were considered, well, horrors. It’s just a pagan belief system, and they don’t really fly around on broomsticks.


The Hollywood cliché

All kids are interested in doing at Halloween is watching gory movies and stuffing their fat, overfed faces with sweets.

The historical reality

Traditionally, Irish children enjoyed a range of activities at Halloween, none of which involved gory movies and stuffing our faces with sweets (mainly because both had been banned by our parents).

These old-fashioned pastimes included bobbing for apples, bobbing for coins, apple on a string, searching for the gold ring in a loaf of barmbrack, hide-and-go-seek, telling of ghost stories, and various games of divination: staring into a darkened mirror to see your future spouse, dangling a silver ring on a chain over someone’s hand to foretell how many children they’d have, even asking questions of rudimentary Ouija boards.

All nonsense, of course, but good, spooky fun all the same.


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