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20th October 2017

Summer Greatorex on the history of Halloween and our fascination with all things spooky…

When ‘ET’ hit the big screen in the early 80s, the nation didn’t just become enamoured with a cute and vulnerable alien, it also became enchanted with the idea of celebrating Halloween on a much bigger scale. Who knew it could be such a party? A whole community coming together to dress up, visit each other’s home and share festive food and treats.

So popular has it become that it’s now overtaken Valentine’s Day as the UK’s third biggest retail event of the year. Brits spent an estimated £310 million on Halloween in 2016, and this figure is only set to rise. As Alice Goody, Retail Analyst at Mintel, says: “For Millennials who grew up celebrating Halloween, this nostalgic event provides a good excuse for a party, and is driving retail spend on food and drink, as well as money on going out.”

Yet some are disheartened by an event that glorifies the dark, creepy and scary side of life and believe it sends mixed messages. Revd. Canon J. John, a Christian speaker and author, says “Concerns about Halloween do not simply come from those of us with a ‘religious agenda’. Increasingly, other people are expressing concern, particularly about the way that Halloween seems to be getting darker and nastier every year. Carved pumpkins were, I suppose, pretty harmless; the new blood-stained axe murderers are not.”

It’s certainly true that Halloween often comes laden with controversy. Who could forget the Cecil the Lion Killer Dentist costume in 2015? And there was understandable outrage this year when a fancy dress outfit designed to make children look like Holocaust victim Anne Frank was marketed. Thankfully, the costume was speedily pulled from the shelves.

It could be argued that the festival doesn’t sit comfortably with some due to its knotty religious history. When the spread of Christianity gathered momentum in the early Middle Ages, the church cleverly sought to re-establish pagan festivals as Christian opportunities for worship. Pagan spiritualism centres around the cycle of nature, so the Spring concept of rebirth blended well with Christ’s Easter Resurrection, and the Winter Solstice – when light miraculously returns to the world – became a seamless metaphor for the arrival of baby Jesus.

In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV decided that All Hallows’ (or All Saints’) Day should fall on 1 November: the same date as the pagan festival marking the end of summer, or the beginning of the ‘dark time’. During Samhain (pronounced So-wain), pagans believe that the boundary between this world and the next is at its thinnest and that spirits, malevolent or otherwise, can cross over. All Hallows’ Eve became a time for good Christians to pray for the dead to expedite their journey from Purgatory (where sinful mortal souls are 'purified') to Heaven, and ‘Souling’, the custom of poor people, often children, going door-to-door collecting soul cakes in exchange for praying for the dead became popular.

These traditions died out in Britain during the Reformation, when Protestants rejected Purgatory as a ‘popish’ invention. Instead it became eclipsed by the rising popularity of Guy Fawkes Night from 1605 onwards, and many Halloween ideas, such as the lighting of bonfires, became appropriated by this holiday instead.

But while Halloween’s popularity waned in Britain, its light was never quite extinguished. Across the Atlantic, Catholic colonists kept the date in their church calendar, and then, with the mass Irish immigration in the 19th century, Halloween traditions were gradually assimilated into mainstream society, including the carving of the ubiquitous pumpkin – so much easier to hollow out than its Celtic cousin, the turnip.

Soon it was being celebrated coast to coast by people of all social, racial and religious backgrounds and adopted enthusiastically into popular culture… thus paving the way, decades later, for Hollywood’s most famous extra-terrestrial to make his covert costumed escape.

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