When thinking about Halloween, we might have different associations depending on where we come from. This spooky holiday is celebrated widely in the United States. You can find decorated houses with cobwebs, pumpkins, ghosts and what not. People like to dress up for it and it is possible to find a bizarre mix of scary costumes and very little fabric (just think of Mean Girls). Smaller to not so small children go from house to house in order to collect sweets and threaten house owners to punish them if they do not get the requested sugary treats.
However, you can find celebrations of this special day not only in the US. With its origins in Ireland, the day is still celebrated here and also in other English-speaking countries. Due to the influence of popular media, it has also spread widely to non-English-speaking countries. The day is of special significance in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, with huge celebrations for the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). You can find more information on this Mexican popular holiday here.
Nowadays you celebrate Halloween with costume parties and pumpkins, but it has not always been like that. Find out more about the origins of Halloween and discover some facts you might not know! Furthermore, we will give you some vocabulary that is specifically related to this spooky holiday.
The Origins of Halloween
The ancient Celts celebrated this day over 2,000 year ago already. Geographically the Celts were located where you would find Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France today. 1 November marked the official end of the summer and the harvest, which marked the start of a new year. This celtic festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Winter was a time of coldness and darkness and had associations of death. Therefore, on the day between summer and winter, the Celts believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead became blurry.
On the night of 31 October the ghosts of the dead returned. Today we might expect that this would mean disturbance and mayhem, but the Celts thought that this would help their druids and priests to make predictions about the coming year. During the celebration, the Celts were assembled around bonfires, sacrificing crops and animals to the Celtic deities. They were wearing costumes in the forms of animal heads and furs.
Halloween around the world
The biggest Halloween celebrations happen in the USA. Indeed, it is said that the average American child eats around 11.5 kg of candy a year. That equals nearly 200 Mars bars! Although it is not scientifically proven that the amount of sweets eaten by Americans is in relation to Halloween, it is safe to assume that with all the treats in the house no child is going to say no to them! (Or have you ever heard a child say: “No, I’ll just have an apple instead of that delicious chocolate bar!”)
Apart from eating sugary delights and especially in order to get them, people dress up. The ancient traditions of wearing animal heads and furs have slightly changed. Even though some people still enjoy wearing animal costumes, these tend to not be made of real fur or dead parts of animals. The range of costumes is very wide and you might just bump into Spiderman, a mouse, a zombie and a princess in the same street. There are also celebrations for adults in the form of parties.
In many Spanish-speaking countries Dia de los Muertos on 2 November is commemorated with a three day long celebration, starting on 31 October. Comparably to the Pagan beliefs that the ghost of the dead would return during this transition from summer to winter, the dead are honoured because it is believed that they return to their earthly homes on the Day of the Dead. Read more about the origins, the celebrations and additional information here in our blog post on the topic.
As mentioned above, the day is still celebrated in Ireland. The Irish have greatly contributed to the popularity of this spooky day and night of celebrations in the United States due to a huge wave of immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. Today, Halloween, derived from the longer form of All Hallow’s Eve, is a national holiday in Ireland. You will see many bonfires and fireworks. Even though fireworks are illegal in the Republic of Ireland, you will still see many that made their way through Northern Ireland into the South.
Facts you might not know about Halloween
- Jack-o’lanterns, the illuminated pumpkins, not always used to be pumpkins. According to the legend, Jack made his lantern out of a turnip.
- Trick-or-treating originated in the UK and Ireland and used to be called souling, when the poorest went from house to house to ask for small pieces of bread, so-called soul cakes.
- This spooky night supposedly used to be great for finding your soulmate. In Ireland people used to play fortune telling games on Halloween that could predict who and when you would marry.
- There is a word for the fear of Halloween: Samhainophobia, from the Celtic celebration of Samhain.
- Halloween is more Irish than St. Patrick’s Day. The roots of Halloween and its celebrations are way older than St. Patrick’s Day. Some people even claim that St. Patrick’s Day was invented by the American Irish.
Typical Halloween vocabulary
You will find expressions that are specific for Halloween in connection with the celebrations of the day. In the following we will provide a table with expressions and a short explanation.
|Jack-o’-lantern||This is the lantern made out of pumpkin. The name derives from the legend where Jack tricked the devil and made a pact with him that he wouldn’t let him into hell. When Jack died and went to heaven but got rejected because he was a drunkard and subsequently was rejected from hell because the devil kept his promise, the devil threw a burning coal after him. He used a turnip that he was conveniently munching on to make a lantern. Nowadays, we use pumpkins instead of turnips.|
|Souling and guising||As mentioned above, souling derives from the act of asking for soul cakes, i.e. small loafs of bread. In Scotland and Northern England souling is also called guising (from the word disguising).|
|Trick-or-treat||The modern Halloween tradition of Trick-or-treating comes from the souling. However, it’s not just poor children asking for bread but children in general asking for sweets. Treat the children well or they will play a trick on you.|
|Cabbage night and mischief night||Most children wouldn’t actually play a trick on you if you don’t give them candy. That might be because they are mainly accompanied by an adult. The main night for playing tricks and doing mischief is the night before Halloween, 30 October. During mischief night, teenagers smash pumpkins, throw cabbages and eggs as pranks.|
Knowing customs and traditions can greatly help in understanding different cultures. At Lingoda, our teachers, who are all native speakers of their respective language, try and convey not only language usage as such, but give you an insight into cultural understanding. Why not try for yourself and see what else you can find out about Halloween!